Those looking for companionship online should beware: Scammers are looking to win your trust and affection, so they can eventually steal your money.
Victims of so-called romance scams, also known as confidence fraud, are predominantly older widowed or divorced women who, for the most part, are educated and computer literate, according to the FBI.1 "These criminals are experts, and they are skilled in how to manipulate and exploit their targets," says Ellen Segriff, UBS Head of Privacy, Cyber and Information Security UBS Wealth Management US.
As this type of fraud grows more prevalent, it's important to know the warning signs and take steps to avoid falling victim.
Anatomy of a romance scam
Criminal groups located abroad will typically troll for victims online, looking for recent divorcees or bereaved widows to target. They'll often start by studying the information their victims post on dating websites, apps, Facebook and other social media. Then, they'll strike up a conversation, using fake profiles to bolster their bogus identities—for example, claiming to be a member of the U.S. military.
Soon, the fraudster may try to move the conversation from the dating site to a more private mode of communication, such as text or email, where it can be easier to evade detection. Over the course of weeks or months, the relationship can evolve into what seems like friendship, even romance. Along the way, the scammer might send flowers and ask for small favors in return, testing their victim's trust.
Eventually, the scammers convince you to wire them money—claiming they need help in an emergency or for airfare so they can finally come visit you—only to suddenly disappear from your life once they receive the funds. For victims, the most immediate effect of this fraud is a loss of money, but the longer-term impact is emotional devastation, from feeling hurt and betrayed by someone they trusted.
Confidence fraud: A growing problem
The spread of online dating sites and apps has made this fraud easier to commit. According to the Better Business Bureau (BBB), victims in the US and Canada have reported losing nearly $1 billion over the last three years, and BBB estimates there may be more than a million victims in the U.S. alone.2
The FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center said it received over 15,000 complaints in 2017, the last year for which data was available—a nearly 6% increase over the previous year.3 Among victims who reported their age to the complaint center, over half were over 50 years old, and they accounted for 70% of the total losses.
How to keep yourself safe
To stay safe online, the FBI advises to be careful what you post and always use reputable sites; if you develop a romantic relationship with someone you meet online, consider the following:
- Research the person’s photo and profile to see if the material has been used elsewhere
- Beware if the individual seems too perfect or quickly asks you to take the conversation offline
- Be wary if the person tries to isolate you from friends and family
- Beware of anyone who promises to meet in person but always comes up with an excuse why they can’t
- Never send money to anyone you don’t know personally
"It is important that you are careful in what you post on social media as this information can put you at risk for this type of scam," Segriff cautions. "You need to ask lots of questions and go slow, especially if someone you don't know personally is asking for money."