Online romance scam losses on the rise. How to protect yourself

by Larry Magid

Just in time for Valentine’s Day,  the Federal Trade Commission published a post saying that in 2018, there were more than 21,000 reports “about romance scams with reported losses of $143 million,” up from  8,500 reports in 2015, with losses of $33 million. The data is based on complaints compiled by the FTC’s Consumer Sentinel Network, which aggregates consumer complaints reported to the FTC and cooperating state and local law enforcement agencies, along with businesses and organizations.

These are scams that can break your budget along with your heart, and they happen to adults of all ages.

The FTC pointed out that “Romance scammers lure people with phony online profiles, often lifting photos from the web to create attractive and convincing personas. They might make up names or assume the identities of real people. Reports indicate the scammers are active on dating apps, but also on social media sites that aren’t generally used for dating. For example, many people say the scam started with a Facebook message.”

FTC data shows how romance scams are on the rise

And while you might assume that most victims would be young adults looking for mates, it turns out that people between 40 and 69 reported losing money at the highest rates — more than double those of people in their 20s. People over 70 reported the highest median losses at $10,000.  ConnectSafely.org’s Seniors Guide to Online Safety, offers tips to seniors on all aspects of online safety, including romance and online dating scams. Often the victim is asked to send money, perhaps to help the person out of a jam or so they can buy a plane ticket to come visit you. ConnectSafely offers these tips:

  • Be aware of online dating scams. There are cases where seniors, as well as younger people, have been scammed into parting with their money and left heartbroken. With anyone you meet online, there is always the possibility they may not be who they claim to be.
  • If you do arrange an in-person meeting with someone you meet online, make sure the first meeting is in a public place, like a restaurant, and bring a friend or at least let others know where you’re going to be. Bring along your cell phone and have a friend call you during the meeting just to make sure all is going well.
  • Watch for red flags. They can include a person who claims or looks to be a lot younger than you or who sends you a picture that looks as if it came from a fashion site. The FBI warns people to be careful about anyone who claims to be from the U.S. who is traveling or working overseas and suggests that you only deal with reputable dating sites. Other red flags include the person pressuring you to leave the dating site to communicate via email or text messaging or someone who professes instant feelings of love. Be suspicious of anyone who is never actually available for a face-to-face meeting.
  • Look for abnormalities in the way a person writes and the type of grammar and words they use. It may not mean anything but it could be a sign that they are in a foreign country and may have no intention of actually meeting you.

The Federal Trade Commission has its own tips, aimed at would-be lovers of all ages

  • Never send money or gifts to a sweetheart you haven’t met in person.
  • Talk to someone you trust about this new love interest. In the excitement about what feels like a new relationship, we can be blinded to things that don’t add up. Pay attention if your friends or family are concerned.
  • Take it slowly. Ask questions and look for inconsistent answers. Try a reverse-image search of the profile pictures. If they’re associated with another name or with details that don’t match up, it’s a scam.
  • Learn more at ftc.gov/imposters.