In 2016, sweetheart swindles were the ninth-most reported form of fraud, and the most expensive for victims, with a median loss of $2,000. With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, and romance in the air, now may be a good time to take a closer look at an online relationship.
According to the National Consumer League, while millions of people meet friends and find romance online, there is a group of fraudsters who have no scruples about separating an unwary and romantic heart from as much of its cash as possible.
These scams are happening everywhere too. If you search for “online romance fraud,” three of the first four websites returned are government-maintained anti-fraud sites in the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom. The fifth site is the U.S. Army’s webpage about online romance scams.
The online scam works pretty much in the same way as an real-life swindle. According to John Breyault, a National Consumer League’s executive, this is how it usually works:
In a typical romance scam, victims are approached online, through a dating website, a social media platform such as Facebook, or another type of online forum. Scammers go to great lengths to cultivate romantic interest with their victims. They nurture the relationship, build trust, and then convince victims to send money, sometimes days or even months into the new “relationship.”
The Federal Trade Commission webpage on romantic scams offers victims a place to tell their stories. Here’s one, dated February 7, 2017:
I think I’m in the process of a potential scam! A guy (going by the name of A[***] H[***], Master Sergeant in the US Army) befriended me on FB, in the Army, picture of hi[m] on FB. Can’t see any of his friends list nor pictures. We start texting on Messenger. He says he is on deployment and on “top secret” mission. That he can’t send/receive any type of voice messages (but messenger is ok?).
Within a few days he is talking love and marriage. He said that a few months ago, they found a terrorist hideout and he found gold and lo[ts] of valuable[s]. After a few days, he said that he would send the items to me for safekeeping until his return, as proof of his love. (yeah right). Today, I received the tracking number.
The shipping company is laneexpress.net and it’s a fake. It originates in Nigeria yet the package is supposedly coming from Syria and is scheduled to be here in two days!! (Really?!! I can’t even send a package within the US that fast!). I am just waiting for the call or e-mail from the fake shipping company asking for money for the package, then for the duty (as the package is supposedly worth over $3 million dollars). All red flags. Is there anywhere to report this now, as it is unfolding. I will be blocking the guy, but I wanted to check this first. Thank you. I’ve been scammed in different ways before, so hopefully, I learned by now.
This story has all three hallmarks of romantic scams that the National Consumer League warns of:
- The “relationship” becomes romantic extremely quickly, with quick pronouncements of love or close friendship.
- The person you’re communicating with makes excuses about not being able to speak by phone or meet in person.
- Your suitor requests that you wire money or cash a check or money order on their behalf and send them the funds.
Other signs to look for:
- The fraudster claims to be a U.S. citizen who lives abroad and is very wealthy or important.
- The swindler claims to be a contractor who needs cash to help with a business deal.
- The scammer claims it is not possible to meet in person or speak by phone.
- The fraudster makes many spelling or grammatical mistakes that most native English speakers would avoid.
The National Consumer League also maintains a website at fraud.org that details all manner of common scams.