When I was a little girl, I loved reading fairy tales and watching film adaptations. The best part was that no matter what happened in the story, no matter how many villains made an appearance, you knew that the heroes and heroines were guaranteed to have a happy ending.
And when villains appeared in books or on-screen, they were usually dark, scary, or obvious, highlighted by creepy music and dramatic lighting. It made it easy to distinguish between the good guys and the not-so-good guys.
In real life, the not-so-good guys can still be found on screens—specifically smartphone and computer screens—and they can be harder to identify. And they’re leaving not only broken hearts but empty bank accounts. That’s because romance scams—where villains woo victims before taking their money—are thriving online. Companies and agencies who monitor these kinds of scams expect those numbers to tick up around Valentine’s Day, as those looking to make a connection can also appear to be easy marks.
The Federal Trade Commission advised that in 2022, nearly 70,000 people reported a romance scam, resulting in $1.3 billion in losses, with a median loss of $4,400.
Those were just the reported losses—the vast majority of frauds are not disclosed to the government. The data suggests that less than 3% of victims complained to a government entity such as the local police, state Attorney General, or federal agency. A little over 2% of victims reported the fraud to the Better Business Bureau. Those numbers suggest that the economic impact of fraud is likely staggering.
So what makes for a bad online romance? While some romance scammers use dating apps like Bumble and OkCupid to target those looking for love, most start with unexpected direct messages on social media. In fact, 40% of people who reported being victims of a romance scam last year said the contact began on social media, compared to 19% from a dating website or app. Of those who signaled that the fraud started on social media, 29% began on Instagram, and 28% got started on Facebook—about 40% of those conversations then moved to other apps like WhatsApp, Google Chat, or Telegram.
Common Scam Themes
While the method of contact may vary, there are some common themes in the development of the relationship. Tops of the list? You rarely meet in person. Often, the reason why this won’t happen is made clear at the onset of the relationship. The scammers will claim to be stationed on a faraway military base or working as an offshore oil rig or ship worker. They may also claim to be sick, hurt, or in jail and alert you from the start that meeting in real life could be challenging.
At first, the scammer may spend time getting to know you online. But eventually, the scammer will ask for money. Often, the request will be linked to an alleged emergency, like issues with accessing bank accounts, jail-related or legal costs, or medical expenses. Scammers are also increasingly posing as successful cryptocurrency investors who claim they can teach you how to make your own fortune.
No matter the line, it’s all a lie.
The goal of these relationships is to get you to part with your money, or personally identifying information that can be used to steal your money. More than 60% of reported losses last year involved cryptocurrency and bank wires, although the most common loss was attributed to gift cards. That’s because while more people paid using gift cards, the median individual reported loss was smaller—just $700. The same holds true for app payments which were, on average, $650. In comparison, losses attributed to cryptocurrency were a whopping $10,079, while bank transfers and payments were $10,000.
Cryptocurrency can appeal to scammers because it offers some semblance of privacy. No banker or broker will flag a suspicious transaction or call you to confirm that you meant to transfer those assets. It’s also easy to move crypto quickly, making it more difficult to trace and claw back than cash or wire transfers. And, of course, there’s an information gap—the potential victims may not understand how cryptocurrency works, making it easy for victims to sell them on investing strategies—while controlling the narrative—without being found out.
So, who is at risk of becoming a victim? Social Catfish, a company that verifies online identities with reverse image searches, released a study last year that analyzed the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center fraud report, the annual FTC fraud report, and trends from the millions of users on their site, socialcatfish.com. They found that victims in California, Florida, Texas, New York, and Washington reported the most losses.
And while you might assume that scammers target the uneducated, Social Catfish found that 75% of the romance scam victims they polled have some college education—13% earned a graduate degree. That doesn’t mean that those victims are necessarily high-wage earners, however. When it comes to income, 84% of romance scam victims make less than $100,000—about half earn less than $40,000 per year.
A Scammer How-To
Scammers don’t typically work alone, nor do they target solitary victims. They often work together with others in a sophisticated crime ring—much like other fraud schemes operate.
Social Catfish obtained a “Nigerian Romance Scammer Bible” that outlined some techniques to connect with victims. And, as you’d expect, the guide suggests that scammers mine social media for details about you. The author explains that “I have a list of all my clients, and beside their name, I write informations about them…Things like their pet, nicknames, children, birthday, things I see on their bio or they have told me.”
That makes it easy to start a conversation with potential victims. The guide suggests, for example, “If her job is on her bio, you can say something like ‘Who knew accountants could be this hot?’” Or “I love all the books you’ve been posting in your story. What are you reading right now?”
The key, they advise, is to “find something about her, and get her to talk to it. It is a sure way to get her to start talking with you.” If that doesn’t work, the scammers have included suggested pick-up lines and a list of conversation starters, like “I just accidentally walked into a pole because I was thoughtlessly staring and smiling at your text messages.”
So how can you tell that you’re talking to a scammer? Here are some characteristics to look out for.
They often seem too good to be true. Scammers often use photos and profiles that belong to other individuals, especially on social media. If you’re not sure that the person you’re talking to online is who they say they are, do some research, like a reverse search using photos, emails, phone numbers, and addresses. You can be sure that they’re doing their research on you.
They fall in love at first sight. I know we all want the fairy tale, but when someone claims to have fallen in love with you, having never met you before, be suspicious. Relationships need time to develop. And if they make excuses why you can’t meet in person, it’s likely because you’re one of 40-50 victims they may be working for an angle.
They use poor grammar. Many romance scammers, like this one based in Ghana that ran an enterprise that stole tens of millions of dollars, are from foreign countries. Since English may not be their first language—the advice in the Nigerian Romance Scammer Bible includes the suggestion that the scammers obtain a grammar app—their messages may sound odd or stilted.
They mix romance with investment advice. Most relationships begin with talking about your shared interests. But if a new love interest seems preoccupied with chatting about investing in crypto, you’re likely being scammed. That’s true even if you see early returns on investments—that method of tricking you into making larger investments is sometimes called a “pig-butchering scam” because the scammers fatten you up before the kill. One Tennessee woman lost $390,000 in precisely that kind of dating scam. After being convinced to invest in a crypto account, she saw what she thought were profits, and convinced her father to invest, too. But when she decided to cash out on the $1.2 million alleged to be in the account, the site claimed she had to first pay a “tax bill” of roughly $380,000. She realized that she and her father had been conned.
Law enforcement agencies, including IRS-Criminal Investigations, have been making efforts to track down and arrest the scammers—but the scale of those criminal enterprises can be pretty remarkable. In November of last year, the Department of Justice announced charges against 10 defendants in multiple states in connection with money laundering and wire fraud schemes that targeted Medicare and Medicaid programs, private health insurers, and other victims, resulting in losses of more than $11.1 million.
Among the defendants charged in the case was Malachi Mullings, of Sandy Springs, Georgia. In addition to other allegations, Mullings is charged with receiving $260,000 from a romance scam perpetrated on an elderly victim, which he subsequently used to purchase a Ferrari.
Another defendant, Adewale Adesanya, of Jonesboro, Georgia, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit money laundering and use of a false passport. He used the passport to create a shell company to open bank accounts to launder more than $1.5 million obtained from schemes including elderly romance scam victims. He was sentenced to four years in prison.
Potential victims need to do their part, too. Here are some tips to keep in mind.
- Be wary. Don’t worry about appearing rude—a real romantic interest will understand your hesitation to jump into a relationship with someone you’ve never met.
- Be stingy. Never provide your bank account or routing number to someone you meet online. Never give your personal information to anyone you meet online, including your social security number, bank account information, or address.
- Be smart. Never send money or agree to invest with anyone you meet online. If you want to invest in cryptocurrency and don’t know how to get started, don’t rely on someone you’ve just met online—consult with a financial professional or a common platform like Coinbase.
- Be curious. If something doesn’t add up, ask questions.
- Be patient. Scammers will want to rush everything—from relationships to wire transfers. Slow down and investigate—and involve a tax or legal professional if you can’t find the answers to your questions.
What To Do If You’ve Been Scammed
If you are the victim of a romance scam, don’t just put your head down and accept it. Fight back. Here are some steps you can take.
- Report it. You can report fraud to local enforcement, the FBI, and the FTC. Remember that most fraud is not reported—that emboldens scammers.
- Contact your financial institution. If you sent money through your bank or brokerage account, try to cancel the transaction. You may also need to update your account information and passwords.
- Notify the online platform. If you were scammed through a social media platform like Facebook or Instagram, let them know—you could help prevent someone else from becoming a victim. Most platforms have an easy reporting option for scams.
- Check with your tax professional. Before the TCJA, you could claim itemized deductions on Schedule A for casualty or theft losses of personal-use property that were not compensated by insurance. Now, the personal casualty and theft loss deduction is only available if the loss is attributable to a federally declared disaster. That means that once the money is gone, it’s typically gone forever. However, victims of fraudulent investment schemes can claim a theft loss deduction if certain conditions apply, so check with your tax professional for details.
Write Your Own Ending
Finally, this Valentine’s Day, don’t get lost in the narrative that your happiness is inextricably tied to finding someone else. If you’re feeling pressured to get involved with someone online, it’s okay to take a step back, even permanently. As Kristin Harmel wrote in her novel, The Life Intended, “The thing is, not every happily ever after needs to end with a Prince Charming.”