For many, Valentine's Day is a time to celebrate. But for scam artists, it's a time to target people looking for companionship online. Beware of romance scammers, who 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. "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.
In a recent episode of the UBS On-Air podcast, Segriff shared her insights into how people get scammed and how they can protect themselves.
- Valentine's Day is a popular time for scam artists to target lonely people looking for love online.
- In 2018, romance scams cost people $143 million more than was lost to any other type of scam, according to the FTC.
- Online daters should research matches before meeting in person.
What are romance scams?
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 US 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 their target to wire them money—claiming they need help in an emergency or for airfare so they can finally come visit—only to suddenly disappear 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, feeling hurt and betrayed by someone they trusted.
How much money do romance scams cost?
Romance scammers are skilled at exploiting their victims. In 2018, people reported losing $143 million to romance scams — a higher total than for any other type of scam reported to the FTC. They also reported that while the median loss was $2,600, for people over 70, it was $10,000.
How to avoid scammers
To stay safe online, Segriff suggests being careful of what you share. "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."
- 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