Romance scams are a subset of what’s commonly referred to as “catfishing,” when a person conjures up a fake online persona to lure in victims for a number of reasons. In the case of romance scams, the motive is financial gain, while catfishing is an umbrella term encompassing what might include motives of love, friendship, or even revenge.
Perpetrators will take to the internet and often target vulnerable people, forging a relationship as soon as possible. The scammer will use a fake photo, create a false bio, and begin wooing the victim with statements of affection and romance, finding excuse after excuse for why they cannot meet in person. Often, the perpetrator will claim to be working outside of the country.
Dr. Kelly Campbell, Professor of Psychology at California State University – San Bernardino and catfishing expert, spoke with Oxygen.com about the growing crime of romance scams.
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“Usually, it involves a period of time, sometimes a matter of weeks, but many of these relationships can go on for years,” says Dr. Campbell. “The defining characteristic is that the person who is there for romance doesn’t have any idea that the other person isn’t there for the same purpose.”
Before long, the catfish asks for money, and the lovestruck victim now falls for their tale of woe. The tricksters are manipulative and often pull on the heartstrings (i.e., a sick child, medical expenses, needing money for travel).
In 2021, romance scam victims’ reported losses of approximately $1 billion, according to the FBI. Per their Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) published report for 2020, that number nearly doubled from the year before.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reported romance scams account for more than any other FTC-investigated fraud, citing 2021 losses as six times greater than those reported in 2017.
“Their motive is to hook people into these romance scams where they’re gonna get money from them,” Dr. Campbell tells Oxygen.com.
In December 2021, federal authorities warned against the dangers of victims becoming money mules, per an IC3 public service announcement. The FBI describes money mules — unwitting or not — as someone who moves laundered funds for another.
The COVID-19 pandemic has only increased romance scams and other cyber crimes.
Are you worried that you or your loved one may be the victim of a love scam? Here are some things to be cautious of when looking for love on the internet.
1. Your Love Interest Never Meets IRL (In Real Life)
Scammers will often find one of a multitude of reasons to avoid meeting in person. They are creative and will come up with any excuse, ranging from something as seemingly innocuous as having a flat tire to having a sick relative in need of immediate care.
Furthermore, so that the victim won’t see their face, they’ll also avoid live online meetings, often claiming to be shy or telling the victim their camera doesn’t work.
“Be leery of excuses and elaborate stories,” says Dr.Campbell.
Experts say it’s important for love seekers to meet in person before letting themselves form an emotional attachment.
It’s always good practice for individuals to steer clear of users who only provide professional-looking pictures or cannot provide photos outside what’s on their social media or dating website. The FBI says doing your own investigation into the user’s information can be telling when trying to identify a catfish.
“Search images and profile content,” adds Dr. Campbell. “You can take whatever they have in their profile, highlight it, and put it into Google and do a search and see if it pops up somewhere else.”
Dr. Campbell says a person can do the same with image searches.
The FBI cautions that a person has good reasons to become suspicious if, after a few months, they’ve yet to meet their love interest in person.
2. It Seems Too Good To Be True
It’s important to realize that perpetrators can be masterful at manipulation, and if they provide a story that seems too good to be true, that’s because it very well may be.
Catfish will often create profiles tailored to the victims’ likes and similar interests, such as religious affiliation or marital status. The con artist on the other end of the conversation will “mold themselves into this ideal person for the victim,” according to Dr. Campbell.
Dr. Campbell calls this “mate value:” What one person brings to a table is what the other person brings to the table, which accounts for why people tend to find mates who share similar levels of attractiveness, lifestyle, wealth, etc.
A red flag could include when a Los Angeles-based millionaire in his 20s with a new Lamborghini reaches out to an elderly woman in small-town America making minimum wage to support her grandchildren.
“It’s kind of common sense,” says Dr. Campbell. “If you don’t have much to offer, or you don’t have much going on for you, and here comes this super handsome, attractive person, that’s kind of a red flag. Why are they interested in you?”
When starting a new online relationship, it’s essential to take things slowly and not be afraid to ask lots of questions, according to the FBI.
3. They Try To Take You Away From The Website
Scammers are quick to take you away from where contact was first initiated, such as a dating website or social media, and insist you communicate through more direct channels, like private messages apps and text, according to the FBI. This makes their illicit communications harder to spot.
Although catfish are known to swim around dating sites, more than one-third of victims in 2021 reported that initial contact with their scammers began on Facebook, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
“My advice would be using paid dating services,” Dr. Campbell tells Oxygen.com. “A lot of times, these financial scammers [will] just pop up through social media or free ways of contacting people rather than through paid dating services. You’re less likely to encounter romance scams in those kinds of pools than you would be if you all of a sudden got a Facebook message from someone who said, ‘Oh, I found you through your friend,’ or whatever.”
Dr. Campbell says scammers are less likely to spend their own money on dating sites, and companies such as match.com have a higher degree of regulation than the likes of social media private messaging.
4. Love Bombing
A catfish’s goal is to endear the victim as soon as possible for financial gain, which is why they’re quick to profess their love. It’s also a means to distract the victim from inquiring about their identity.
The concept is old, but the term “love bombing” is relatively contemporary, defined as “the practice of showing a person excessive affection and attention as a way of manipulating them in a relationship.” At first, it feels good for the victim to feel showered with affection, but the adoration can then be weaponized against the scammed.
For example, a perp might say, “If you really loved me, then you’d send me the $900 I need to travel back to America.”
Love bombing is a means for an abuser — online and not — to gain control of their victim and make them more dependent on the abuser, often as a form of gaslighting. And, as seen in cases of domestic violence-related instances of abuse, it is cyclic and repetitive, according to Verywell Mind.
The fraudster may ask for sensitive information that they can soon hold against you, including nude photos, commonly referred to as “sextortion” (a portmanteau of the words “sex” and “extortion”). They may also ask for other compromising information and use it as blackmail, lest the victim pays up.
Experts advise never sharing sensitive information on the internet if you haven’t so much as met the person face-to-face.
5. They Ask For Money Or Ask You To Move Money
One of the most tell-tale signs of a romance scam is when an online user you’ve never met in person asks for money. They can also ask for bank account information or other sensitive material, enabling them to take a victim’s funds.
“They may ask for money for an emergency or unexpected expense and may even ask you to pay for their travel to visit you,” according to the FBI’s Washington Field Office. “But, you will likely never meet this person face-to-face.”
The scammer often promises to pay the money back but never does, according to Agent Christine Beining of the FBI’s Houston Office.
“From what we can tell, there are usually criminal organizations that work together,” according to Agent Beining. “And once a victim becomes a victim, in that they send money, they will oftentimes be placed on what’s called a ‘sucker list,’ and their names and identities are shared with other criminals. And they will be targeted for future recruitment.”
The FTC states scammers claim one financial or health-related crisis after the other to milk more money from the victim. Other times, as is the case for money mules, victims are asked to move funds, often under the pretense of moving the monies associated with the love interest’s inheritance or business.
Money mules help add distance between the criminal and the crime, making them harder to track, according to the FBI.
More and more, federal authorities are noting an increase in moved cryptocurrency and transferred monies being converted to cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin, Litecoin and Potcoin, according to the 2020 IC3 report.
Cryptocurrency accounted for $139 million in losses in 2021, more than five times what was reported in 2020 and 25 times more than 2019 reports, according to the FTC. Another common form of money transfer was via gift cards, which one in four victims said they had.
The FBI warns that money mules can face prosecution and other fines, even if unaware that they’re being used for a criminal’s profit. Federal charges could include money laundering, mail fraud, wire fraud, and identity theft.
6. Remember, Romance Scams Can Happen To Anyone
From the outside, one might assume victims of romance scams are uneducated, elderly women who are desperate for love, but that’s not necessarily true. According to Reader’s Digest, polls showed 75% of victims were college-educated.
Children and teens deemed “tech-savvy” also had the most significant increase in online scams in general, with polls showing a 1126% increase in people under 20 giving money to scammers between 2017 and 2021.
The elderly accounts for most of the victims of general online scams, leading to the Elder Justice Initiative.
“Victims over the age of 60 are targeted by perpetrators because they are believed to have significant financial resources,” according to the IC3 report.
Though both men and women can fall prey to romance scams, in particular, victims are more likely to be women with anxious attachments, according to Psychology Today.
And since scammers are known to tailor their false identities based on the victims’ public information, users should be mindful of what they post on the internet.
“Be careful of what you post,” Dr. Campbell tells Oxygen.com. “Don’t post anything that could really identify you, like, let’s say, a photo of you standing next to your car that shows your license place or something like that.”
If you or someone you know is believed to be the victim of a romance scam, the IC3 accepts complaints from alleged victims and third parties.
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