Confidence fraud, also called romance scamming, is on the rise. But the FBI is coming down hard on perpetrators. Get tips from the FBI on how to protect yourself from online romance scams.
Romance scamming is a multi-million-dollar business and growing. Comparing 2015 to 2018, the number of reports to the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) more than doubled, and reported losses more than quadrupled. In 2018, the FTC was hit with over 21,000 reports of romance scams, with the victims reporting losses of $143m, more than any other type of consumer fraud reported to the FTC. Backtrack to 2015, when the FTC got 8,500 reports of romance scams, and reported losses totalled $33m. The FBI is seeing a similar rise. In 2016, the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) received almost 15,000 complaints of romance scams, amounting to losses of over $230m (more than R3,357m). That’s almost 2,500 more complaints than in 2015.
Romance scams can be financially devastating for their targets. In 2018, the typical victim lost roughly $2,600, about 7 times higher than other frauds. Some of the more unlucky victims have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
But the FBI is clamping down hard on these and other devastating Internet crimes.
In August 2019, the FBI accused 80 people in what is believed to be one of the biggest cases of online fraud in U.S. history, involving $40m (R606m). Out of the 80 accused, 77 were Nigerian. According to the US authorities, the suspects used a range of different fraud schemes to defraud their targets of millions of dollars, These included romance scams, business email compromise (BEC) fraud (where funds are illegally transferred in real companies), and schemes targeting the elderly. This indictment was a huge step in disrupting the criminal networks that use BEC schemes, romance scams and other frauds to dupe victims. It sends a strong message that the FBI WILL identify fraudsters – no matter where they live – and WILL stop the flow of ill-gotten gains.
What is the typical profile of a romance scam victim targeted by criminal groups, usually from Nigeria? Victims are mainly older women, computer-literate and educated, and often emotionally fragile, widowed or divorced. And scammers know just how to hone in on that vulnerability because potential victims willingly post details about their lives and themselves on dating and social media sites. “The Internet makes this type of crime easy because you can pretend to be anybody you want to be.” says Christine Beining, special FBI agent.
So when you’re online, how do you protect yourself against these romance scams? According to the FBI, be wary about what you post, as con artists can use that info against you. Always use credible websites, but assume that scammers are combing through even the most reputable dating and social media sites.
If you’re building a romantic relationship with someone you met online, the FBI gives the following tips:
1. Google their photo and profile to see if they’ve used the same material somewhere else. Copy and paste text should raise a big red flag.
2. Take it slow and ask lots of questions.
3. Be careful if the person seems too perfect or soon asks you to leave a dating service or social media site to go “offline.”
4. Beware if they try to separate you from friends and family, or ask for inappropriate photos or financial data. These could be used to scam you later.
5. Be warned if they promise to meet in person but then always come up with an excuse as to why they cannot. If you haven’t met the person after a few months, whatever the excuse, be suspicious.
6. Never EVER send money to anyone you don’t know personally. “If you don’t know them, don’t send money,” Beining said. “You will see what their true intentions are after that.”
Most importantly, if your gut says something isn’t right, it probably isn’t. Listen to it and end that online conversation fast. If you want your gut feel to get better at warning you, you need to develop it through practice. And that comes by listening to your instincts. Stay safe!