The Federal Trade Commission reported romance scams hit record highs in 2021, with reported losses of $547 million dollars. This is an 80% increase over 2020. Despite the prevalence of romance scams, they have only recently gained popularity in mainstream media since the premier of the Netflix documentary The Tinder Swindler. This documentary illustrates how easy this type of fraud can be to fall victim to. Therefore, it is important to learn how to spot a romance scam before a relationship is formed when it is easier to disengage the victim from the perpetrator.
What is a Romance Scam?
According to the Federal Bureau of Investigations, a “romance scam occurs when a criminal adopts a fake online identity to gain a victim’s affection or trust.” This trust results in the victim giving the criminal money, gifts, or personal information. These criminals are good at what they do and are master manipulators. They come across genuine, caring, loving, and are very believable. The criminal will work to quickly form a bond with the intended victim, known as “love bombing.” The criminal will tell the victim a variety of lies and “sweet nothings” to gain the victim’s trust. The victim will be flattered and taken in by the criminal’s seemingly genuine devotion. These criminals will craft an identity based on information the victim has posted online and will make it seem as though the criminal is a perfect match…. their “soulmate.”
Spot the Red Flags
In the world of dating, red flags are defined as a behavior that is commonly considered problematic or a danger to a healthy relationship. These red flags are indicated by a gut-feeling that something is wrong or just not quite right. When dealing with someone perpetrating a romance scam, there will be several “red flags.”
Red Flag #1- Proximity
Proximity is a red flag that is easily identifiable. For instance, these criminals will claim to be from another country or another state. This will make it difficult for the victim to attempt to meet the criminal in real life. The relationship between the victim and criminal will take place solely online. When the victim attempts to visit the criminal, the criminal will make up an excuse as to why they cannot meet. These criminals will claim there is an emergency that keeps them from visiting. To those individuals on the outside of the situation, it will be obvious these excuses do not make logical sense.
Red Flag #2- Lack of Presence on the Internet
Most everyone has left their “footprint” on the internet. If you do a basic Google search of yourself, even if you have limited social media presence, you will find mentions of your name. These criminals will have very little online presence. If the criminal is using their real identity, they will block their intended victim and their victim’s loved ones from seeing their real selves and social media. The criminals will have many excuses for why they have a limited presence online, from “stalkers” to their job.
Red Flag #3- They Make the Relationship Too Serious Too Fast
These criminals will advance the relationship faster than intimacy and trust is normally established in a relationship. They will almost immediately claim they love the victim, that they are meant to be together, or they will start discussing marriage or living a life together. They will discuss moving to where the victim lives or having the victim move to where they are, but will come up with excuses when the victim begins to press the issue.
Red Flag #4- They Ask for Money or Gifts
The biggest red flag to watch out for is asking for money. The criminal will ask the victim for small “loans”, money, or gifts. They may ask the victim to pay for plane tickets to come see them, but never arrive. They may ask the victim to pay for surgery, medical expenses, pay off of debts, or ask them to loan them money for an emergency. Since the criminal has imitated love and affection for the victim, and the victim truly believes it is genuine, the victim typically does not hesitate to give them money.
How to Prevent Becoming a Victim
In order to prevent becoming a victim of a romance scam, it is important to recognize these red flags and take steps to protect yourself. Be cautious about the information that you post online since it can be used by criminals to better target you. To do this, keep your social media profiles on private. Create a new email unrelated to your identity when signing up for dating sites and applications. Avoid giving out personal information in your profiles.
If you are actively using dating websites or applications, watch out for individuals who want you to delete your profiles from these sites after they start talking to you. Be careful not to give out your real phone number for communication and use only the dating applications chat feature. Remember that these scammers are often masters at what they do and are very manipulative.
If your love interest claims to be “traveling for work” or is living outside of the state (or country), proceed with caution. Do research on the individual you are talking to. A basic Google search of their name can provide you with a wealth of information and is not a violation of their privacy. Click any links that contain their name, search for any licenses they say they have, and find out if their online presence is consistent with who they say they are. You can even take the photo they are using and do a reverse image search. If you cannot find any profiles or information, it is likely they do not exist or they have blocked you from finding them. Ask a friend to do a Google search and see if they are able to find anything related to the person you are talking to.
If you do find yourself in a long-distance relationship, know that it is normal to visit the person you are dating. If the person you are talking to online makes an excuse of an emergency, illness, business loss, or some other type of catastrophe every time you try to meet them, you should be incredibly suspicious of their intentions. Typically, these excuses will be coupled with the criminal asking for money. Remember never send money or gifts to anyone you have only communicated with on the phone or online!
Take It Slow
In any relationship, take it slow. Ask questions and get to know them before providing them with your personal information, such as emails or phone numbers. Be aware of any inconsistencies in their stories and don’t let them explain them away. Pay attention to the information they tell you, if the person seems “perfect” and has all the same exact interests as you, be wary. It is important to recognize if they start attempting to create a false sense of intimacy too soon after beginning to talk to them. If they claim they are falling in love with you or begin talking about marriage early on, this is a good indication they are either unstable or are a scammer.
Trust Yourself and Trust Your Loved Ones
If someone you are talking to has exhibited these red flags, trust yourself. If you need a second opinion, go to someone you trust, and ask their opinion on the situation. Your loved ones who are removed from the relationship can better see the inconsistencies, lies, and manipulation than you might be able to.
If you suspect a loved one or someone you know is a victim of a romance scam, approach them cautiously. They are likely to be sensitive regarding the criminal. This is because the victim will have been conditioned to believe the criminal does love them. Lay out the facts and advise them to stop talking to the person. Tell them to report the criminal to law enforcement immediately. Be prepared for them to make excuses and choose to believe the criminal. Just be ready to assist them when they realize they are being victimized.
If You Become a Victim of a Romance Scam
Immediately stop talking to the criminal. Call your financial institution and report any money that you may have sent to the criminal. You should file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, the Federal Bureau of Investigations, and your local law enforcement. Keep records of any communications you have had with the scammer or any money or gifts that you sent them. Also keep any pictures or identifying information they may have sent you, along with numbers and profiles they used. This information can help law enforcement identify the individual and prevent them from victimizing anyone else.