Roughly one million Americans have fallen victim to scammers who use dating websites or social media to find their prey.
According to a study by the Better Business Bureau, “romance fraud” prompted victims to lose nearly $1 billion over the last three years.
“The way that romance scams work is similar to typical scams,” said Jason Kama, marketplace manager, Hawaii Better Business Bureau. “Romance scams are a little worse in a sense, because they actually pull on victims’ heartstrings. What they do is the scammers will set up a relationship with the victim over several months, at some times, up to years, in order to slowly milk small amounts of money out of the victim over a long period of time.”
According to BBB Scam Tracker, an Alaska woman reported losing $5,000 to a romance scam in November 2017.
She started a long-distance relationship with a man she found on a dating site. He told her he lived in Malaysia and often asked her for money for rent, hospital bills, and business endeavors. The man claimed he would come live with her when he received his visa. When she tried to talk to him about it, he stopped communicating with her. After three years of a long-distance relationship, she gave him a total of $5,000.
Kama says scammers can also take advantage of the relationship to learn more about the victim’s identity.
“Little things like your mother’s maiden name, or the street that you grew up on, or maybe information about your first pet, your address. They can use all of these things as a way to steal your identity and open up credit or other forms of financial currency in your name, and then thereby take that money out without even asking for the money from you,” he said.
While Kama says there have been several reports of these types of scams occurring in Hawaii, no victim has been willing to come forward publicly.
“A lot of people in Hawaii feel that there’s an identity of shame, or a stigma attached to falling for a scam, when the reality is the stigma should be on the person who is perpetuating the scam, and defrauding these people of their money,” Kama said. “So we really encourage the public to report any scams to the Better Business Bureau Scam Tracker so we can help to catch and eliminate these threats to the local community.”
The study recommends that law enforcement agencies share more information about successful romance fraud prosecutions, do more training and prosecute more cases. BBB recommends online dating sites and social media do more to screen, identify and remove profiles used for scams. There also needs to be more support services offered for romance fraud victims.
Among the report’s key findings:
- There is no typical victim of romance fraud. They can be male or female, young or old, straight or gay. The common denominator is that they are seeking a loving relationship, and they believe they have found it.
- Scammers often portray themselves as U.S. military members. Military officials say they receive thousands of complaints yearly from scam victims around the world. Officials note military members will never need money for leave or health care.
- The majority of romance fraud has its home in West Africa, particularly Nigeria. There also are groups that operate in Russia and the Ukraine that employ online dating sites to defraud victims.
- At any one time, there may be 25,000 scammers online working with victims. A company that screens profiles for dating companies told BBB that 500,000 of the 3.5 million profiles it scans monthly are fake.
BBB offers the following tips for daters to avoid being caught in a romance scam:
- Protect your identity and your wallet. Scammers prefer prepaid cards and money transfers. Never send money or any personal information to someone you’ve never met in person. Visiting with someone via a video call doesn’t mean they’re not a scammer. Also, be cautious to not reveal any personal information or do anything you might regret later when using video applications. Some scammers use software to record video calls and then use it to extort money from victims. Don’t succumb to pleas of financial crisis.
- Think before going from public to private. Be hesitant if the conversation moves from a monitored site like social media or a dating site to a more private form of communication like email or instant messaging. This strategy might be a way for the scammer to draw you in without other people interfering.
- Do your research. Pour over the profile image and description. If it sounds too good to be true, verify it. You can perform a reverse image search to see if the profile photo has been used on other websites. You can also copy a portion of their biography and search to see if it’s been used on other sites. Scammers often use the same profile details and photos on multiple sites.
- Ask for details and get specific. Request other forms of identification, like a photo of them holding a piece of paper with their username on it. Ask specific questions about details in their profile. If they claim to be a military member, ask for their official military address as those all end in @mail.mil. Scammers likely will make excuses for why they can’t provide you more information.
- Pay attention to communication. Be wary of bad grammar and misspelled words. No one is perfect, but if mistakes often are repeated, it may suggest they aren’t from where they claim. Be on guard for use of pet names or discussions of marriage early in correspondence.
- Report it. If you feel like you’ve been victimized, report it to BBB’s ScamTracker, the Federal Trade Commission and FBI.