Losses from romance scams soared by over 71% from 2017-18, with victims increasingly recruited as money mules, according to a new public service announcement from the FBI.
The bureau’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) claimed that 15,000 victims reported romance and confidence scams in 2017, at a cost of $211m. By the following year there were 18,000 victims reporting losses of over $362m.
These figures propelled the cybercrime category to the seventh most widely reported scam and second costliest to victims last year after BEC.
The IC3 said elderly widows are particularly vulnerable to such scams. Once trust has been established, the scammer — who often masquerades as a US/European citizen living abroad — will ask for money so they can buy a plane ticket to visit the victim.
Sometimes they claim that wired funds did not reach them and request another transfer. Often when they don’t arrive they’ll claim they were arrested and ask for bail money, the notice warned.
Often the victim is persuaded to open bank accounts and/or register a limited company in their name in order to send or receive funds – sometimes to facilitate a lucrative ‘business opportunity.’
Money mules are a key link in the cybercrime chain, enabling criminals to launder money from their online schemes.
The recruitment of victims via romance scams is just one method of tricking users into handing over their bank details. Often youngsters are approached on social media or WhatsApp with ads promising them an opportunity to make some quick cash.
Despite a potential jail sentence in the UK of up to 14 years, there was a 26% rise in reports of money mules aged 21 and under between 2017 and October 2018, according to anti-fraud non-profit Cifas.
In fact, it has become such a problem that Scottish police wrote to every secondary school in the country earlier this year warning parents and guardians that pupils are increasingly being recruited by cybercrime gangs as money mules.