Romance Scams: The (not so) Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

February is almost here and Love is in the air! Millions of singles are putting their efforts to find love into overdrive because, let’s face it, no one wants to be solo on Valentine’s Day.

Lucky for today’s singles, the internet has vastly widened the dating pool and has made it easy to make an instant connection with anyone, anywhere in the world. We have all heard of, or know, a couple who met online, married, and are living happily with their 2.5 children in their little white house with a white picket fence.

These matches have become so commonplace that, according to a study from the Pew Research Center, 15% of American singles belong to at least one dating website or mobile app, up from just 3% a decade ago. Additionally, 80% of Americans who use technology believe that dating sites are a great way to meet people.

Unfortunately, for every person that finds true love, another is left with a broken heart….and a broken bank account.

Take, for example, Lucy, a thirty-something, successful attorney who joins a dating website to meet the man of her dreams. After corresponding with several possible matches, she meets Ricardo, a handsome land developer from New York who is currently living in Costa Rica, working on a development deal.

Ricardo tells Lucy he lives in a “gated community,” works out regularly in his “home gym,” and “loves to unwind in quiet solitude.” Ricardo likes the same foods, movies, books, and activities as Lucy and is attentive, loving, and ohhhh so romantic.

Lucy is hooked! She spends countless hours talking to Ricardo and after just a few short weeks, he tells her he is in love. “ Wow!” Lucy thinks, “This is The One!”

Ricardo is going to take a break from his land deal and fly to Lucy’s city so that they can finally meet in person. The day before Ricardo’s flight, he calls Lucy and tells her his land deal fell through and he needs money to keep it going. He asks Lucy for the money and promises to pay her back as soon as the deal is settled, in about a week. He apologizes to Lucy because he has to postpone his visit until the deal is completed. Lucy is disappointed, but she agrees to give Ricardo the money. After all, she and Ricardo are in love.

Lucy wires the money to Ricardo and never hears from him again. Lucy later discovers that “Ricardo” is actually Merle, a fifty-something, overweight, balding convict, who was just released from Rikers Island, New York. Lucy thinks bitterly, “at least he was telling the truth about living in a gated community in New York.”

This story may be fiction, but the facts are all too common. According to the FBI, this scam, called “Romance Fraud,” is a growing business which cost over 15,000 victims more than $200 million dollars in 2017. However, because many victims are unlikely to report this crime, due to feelings of shame and embarrassment, the FBI believes the actual numbers are much higher.

Perpetrators of Romance Fraud troll the internet for potential victims. They use social media sites, gaming websites and apps such as Words With Friends, and dating websites and apps to find people who post often. They are looking for people who are widowed or divorced, and have suffered a recent trauma. Generally, victims are women in their 50’s, with successful careers, and are computer savvy.

The scammers are usually connected with criminal gangs, are criminal professionals, and spend hours perfecting their skill. They pose as both men and women, and often purport to be military, and in need of help.

These online Don Juans make contact with their target, often claiming to be a friend of a friend. Once contact is made, they use their victim’s posts to learn likes, dislikes, passions, and hobbies, and often keep a journal of the information they learn. They then use this information to romance their mark and build trust.

Once trust is built, the scammers ask for money, always promising to pay it back. These online perpetrators also often use their victims, often unknowingly, to launder money, transport drugs, or fence stolen goods. Additionally, it is common for these conmen to ask their target to send them “provocative photos” and later use the photos to extort money, threatening to publish the photos.

Often the victims of Romance Fraud become depressed, and develop other mental health problems. And, to make things worse, the scammer will often pass on his victim’s information to other con artists to be re-victimized.

You can, however, protect yourself from these attacks and search for that romantic connection without fear. Keep in mind the following warning signs and protective measures and you will be able to “swipe right,” and be confident you are making the right decision.

• Only communicate through the dating website’s communication platform until you are very comfortable with the relationship. Many of the scammers will want to go offline, onto a private email or messenger right away. They will be anxious to leave the dating site.

• Take it slow and be suspicious if a person expresses his or her love early in your communication. This is a common trend among the perpetrators. The quicker they can build trust, the sooner their payday.

• Be cautious if a person claims to be an American living overseas, but his or her grammar is bad or they misuse common colloquialisms. Check out his social media profiles and look for inconsistencies in language. While you’re there, run photos through a reverse image search, such as images.google.com, tineye.com, or “Jeffrey’s Image Metadata Viewer, to see if the photo he has posted of himself is actually from a magazine.

• Often, the con artists will not use your name, but instead call you “honey, love, or sweetie.” This is because he is sending the same message to many other victims. The scammers often purchase scripts that they use over and over again. If you would like to see if those beautiful words he writes to you appear elsewhere, go to www.scamwarners.com.

• Be careful of what you post and say. Scammers will begin asking for personal information early in the relationship. Any personal information you have used in security questions for passwords, such as your favorite color, first pet’s name, or street you grew up on, can help these criminals gain access to your accounts.

• Do your research. Google him, check professional websites such as state bar associations or medical boards, check out his story, become a “cyber stalker” until you are certain he is who he says he is, and most importantly, DO NOT SEND MONEY!

Finally, if you have done your due diligence and still think your online romance might turn into a lasting relationship, but want to be certain he is “Ricardo” and not “Merle,” you can hire the reliable and discreet private investigators at Inter-State Investigative Services to conduct a thorough background check to put your mind at ease.