Online romance scams stealing millions from victims
A new study that reveals an estimated one million Americans have been victimized in romance scams, with losses nearing one billion over the last three years, according to a study by the Better Business Bureau (BBB).
In a press conference Tuesday morning, Feb. 13, which included representation from AARP, Zoosk, a BBB Accredited Businesses and Nev Schulman, creator and host of MTV’s Catfish, the BBB warned those who use dating websites to be wary of scammers who prey on unsuspecting victims.
The study – “Online Romance Scams: A Better Business Bureau Study on How Scammers Use Impersonation, Blackmail and Trickery to Steal from Unsuspecting Daters” – says the scheme can take a number of months to play out as the scammer gains the victim’s trust. The scammer eventually will begin to ask for small amounts of money to test the victim, then will ask for more and more. Victims often turn into unknowing accomplices of money laundering.
The study recommends that law enforcement agencies share more information about successful romance fraud prosecutions, do more training, and prosecute more cases.
BBB recommends online dating and social media apps and sites do more to screen, identify, and remove profiles used for scams. There also needs to be more support services offered for romance fraud victims.
“We believe that this is an under-reported crime with many victims too embarrassed to report what has happened to them,” said Lori Wilson, President & CEO of BBB serving the San Francisco Bay Area and Northern Coastal California.
“Victims can be wiped out financially and emotionally. If you are going to use an online dating site, it’s vital that you know that the person on the other end of the conversation is who they say they are.”
Wilson adds that “while many people have great success online, be sure to use common sense and listen to your internal radar.”
A California woman, Ann, lost $22,000 to a romance scam and is now totally broke, in credit card debt and living with her daughter.
A year after her husband died, Ann decided to try online dating. Before long she heard from a man who called himself “Wayne King.” They began communicating, first through a dating website and then over text. King claimed to be a 66-year-old living in Pasadena, California, who owned a company in Maryland.
He tried to gain Ann’s confidence by showing her “evidence” that proved his bank account contained more than one million dollars. When King said his daughter was in the hospital, Ann sent some money to help. Then King said he was in Beijing, but was having trouble shipping goods for his business to the U.S. He asked Ann to help him pay to ship the goods through Malaysia to the U.S. Over the course of a month, Ann sent King $22,000 on the strength of his promises to pay her back. Later, King asked her to buy him four iPhones and a Macbook Pro. She maxed out her credit cards to buy these and ship them to him, again on the promise that King would pay her back. He never did.
At 69 years old, she is now taking medication for anxiety, may need heart surgery, and is filing for bankruptcy. Her daughters told her she needed to report this, and Ann went to the police and also reported it to BBB. Despite the heartache she has suffered, she agreed to share her story to help keep others from suffering through a similar experience.
Among the report’s key findings:
- There is no “typical” victim of romance fraud. They can be any gender, age, or sexual orientation. The common denominator is that they are seeking a loving relationship, and they believe they have found it.
- Scammers often pretend to be U.S. military members. Military officials say they receive thousands of complaints yearly from scam victims around the world. Officials note military members will never need money for leave or health care.
- The majority of romance fraud has its home in West Africa, particularly Nigeria. There also are groups that operate in Russia and the Ukraine that employ online dating sites to defraud victims.
- At any one time, there may be 25,000 scammers online working to defraud victims. A company that screens profiles for dating companies told BBB that 500,000 of the 3.5 million profiles it scans monthly are fake – around 15%.
The report was prepared by C. Steven Baker, BBB International Investigations Specialist. Baker is the retired director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Midwest Region.
In his role with BBB, Baker is working with an alliance of five BBB’s, including the Oakland office, in analyzing and reporting on some of the most pervasive fraud issues that impact American consumers.
This is his third study released through BBB. A September 2017 study on puppy scams and a December 2017 study on tech support scams he authored each were met with worldwide media coverage.
BBB offers the following tips for daters to avoid being caught in a romance scam:
- Protect your identity and your wallet. Scammers prefer prepaid cards and money transfers. Never send money or any personal information to someone you’ve never met in person. Phone conversations or “meeting” someone via a video call doesn’t mean they’re not a scammer. Also, be cautious revealing any personal information or doing anything you might regret later when using video applications. Some scammers use software to record video calls and then use it to extort money from victims. Don’t succumb to pleas of financial crisis.
- Think before going from public to private. Be hesitant if the conversation moves from a social media or a dating site to a more private form of communication like email, instant messaging, or texting. Dating sites often monitor messages to prevent scams, and scammers will try to use this strategy to draw you in without other people interfering.
- Do your research. Pour over the profile image and description. If it sounds too good to be true, verify it. You can perform a reverse image search to see if profile photos have been used on other websites. You can also copy a portion of their biography and search to see if it’s been used on other sites. Scammers often use the same profile details and photos on multiple sites.
- Ask for details and get specific. Request other forms of identification, like a photo of them holding a piece of paper with their username on it. Ask specific questions about details in their profile. If they claim to be a military member, ask for their official military address as those all end in @mail.mil. Scammers likely will make excuses for why they can’t provide you more information.
- Pay attention to communication. Be wary of bad grammar and misspelled words. No one is perfect, but if mistakes often are repeated, it may suggest they aren’t from where they claim. Be on guard for use of pet names, discussions of marriage, or professions of love early in correspondence.
- Report it. If you feel like you’ve been victimized, report it to BBB Scam Tracker, the Federal Trade Commission and FBI.