Romance scams continued to break hearts and empty wallets at a record pace in 2020, the Federal Trade Commission said.
For the last three years more money has been lost to romance scams than any other fraud, reaching a record $304 million in 2020, according to data compiled by the FTC.
That’s up a whopping 50% from 2019. And from 2016 to 2020, total dollar losses increased more than fourfold while the number of reports nearly tripled, the FTC said.
Reports of gift cards being used to send money to scammers increased by nearly 70% in 2020, the FTC said. Gift cards and wire transfers are the most frequent payment methods for romance scams.
In a typical scheme, the scammer, using a fake identity, tries to quickly woo a victim by expressing strong emotions or professing an immediate connection, according to the FBI’s Scams and Safety web page.
"I felt a real soul connection with him right away," one victim said in a declaration posted on the page and the FBI’s YouTube channel. "We sang to each other. We prayed with each other," the woman said.
Then came the plea for money. "He was trying to finish up a job in California and he needed some money," the woman said.
She ended up sending him money. And then he asked for more money. "He was coming in over budget…he needed a lawyer," the woman said, among other reasons he gave for needing money. As a result, in the end, she lost all of her inheritance and retirement money.
Indicators of a scam
After the scammer has made an emotional connection – which can stretch out for weeks or even months – there is invariably a request for money.
"Sooner or later, these scammers always ask for money. They might say it’s for a phone card to keep chatting. Or they might claim it’s for a medical emergency, with COVID-19 often sprinkled into their tales of woe," the FTC said.
The stories are varied but all are meant to create a sense of urgency that can make victims send money over and over again, according to the FTC.
Another ploy: scammers often claim to live in another part of the country or to be abroad for business or a military deployment. That way, they avoid meeting face to face.
The FBI offers tips on romance scams, including:
Watch what you share: scammers can use details shared on social media and dating sites to target you.
Be wary of attempts to isolate you from friends and family.
Don’t share inappropriate photos or financial information as these could be used later to extort you.
Don’t move to private email or chat too quickly.
Be suspicious if the individual promises to meet in person, but then always comes up with an excuse why they can’t.
Try a reverse-image search of the profile pictures to see if the pictures are associated with another name.