Valentine’s day is one of the most sentimental times of the year, and can be one of the most stressful periods for lonely people searching for true love. A recent survey showed that 82% of Australians think that “loneliness is increasing”, a concealment for saying they are the ones who actually are lonely. 33% of the survey’s respondents said they had no one to confide in, and that is exactly what romance scammers are counting on: the increase of lonely people goes hand in hand with the increase of romance scams.
Last year only, studies showed that more than $25 million dollars were stolen due to romance scams in Australia. It’s interesting to note that not only women are targeted, but men too: they were actually equitably represented in the survey, with 45% and 43% respectively. The major difference between the two genders is the amount of financial losses: $11 million for women against $7 million for men. This is of course just the tip of the iceberg: a lot of victims refrain to report having being romance-scammed due to embarrassment and emotional suffering.
What is it?
A romance scam is a fraud technique that criminals use to access their victims’ finances by engaging in a romantic relationship with them, gaining their trust and affection so that they can later manipulate their lovers-victims into willingly sending them money.
Our experts’ explanation
Scammers’ victims are often individuals over 45 years-old, signing up to dating websites or showing some loneliness indicators on Social Media platforms, like Facebook. Prime targets are divorced ones, widow(er)s, elderly and disabled persons: all different types of people that may be more susceptible to fall into their trap. Scammers especially target older people since those may be less experienced on the Internet, and are often not as tech-savvy as younger ones.
Once they choose their victims, criminals will create fake yet highly believable profiles using stolen photos on the Internet, from modelling agencies, free stock image websites or already existing social media profiles. They can also simply steal a whole account content to impersonate someone, by creating a different yet very similar profile. There are two types of victims in romance scams: not only the ones that will suffer financial extortion and emotional pain, but also those who’s photos or entire profiles has been stolen. This usually affect trusting-profile people all over the world, especially military men and women, as well as any professional working in a foreign land.
Criminals then use dating websites, emails or mobile apps to first contact their victims. Someone may think they just met online the love of their life: good-looking, same hobbies and interests, with a good situation… but the reality is that they are in fact building a relationship with someone probably spending his days in a cybercafé, more than likely based overseas, nurturing several similar relationships with different individuals, all with the same profile: lonely and vulnerable. Scammers will impersonate someone that looks like to be everything their victim always looked for in a mate. In order to make their victim fall in love with them, criminals will use well-rehearsed scripts that have been proven successful before.
After establishing the first contact, scammers will try to move communications as quickly as possible to a more private channel, such as emails, text messages or phone calls. That helps them to stay undercover and avoid detection from dating websites or apps. Scammers then spend weeks, months and even years building the romantic relationship with their victims, even sending them gifts, flowers, as well as poetry and passionate messages to trick their victims to fall in love with them, and lower their defences. Once this is accomplished, they can move to the successful-part of their scheme: getting access to their victims’ finances.
After months or years of exchanging with their supposedly loved-ones, one day victims will receive an urgent message asking them for money. Several reasons may be given: a sudden financial difficulty, a medical emergency, a family drama, help with a business investment, need to rebook the flights to come visit them… A very popular technique used by criminals is also pretending not to be able to cash a cheque where they are, so they ask their victims for money as a loan, and they will send a cheque back to repay it; which is, of course, always a fake one. No matter the story they tell, scammers will ask for money orders, wire or international funds transfers since those are very hard to be traced and refunded.
Another way scammers extort money from their victims is blackmail. During the relationship, criminals trick their lovers into sending them intimate photos or videos. They then use those footages to blackmail their victims by threatening to make them public or to send them to friends and relatives, if they don’t receive the ransom.
In a yet another hoax, scammers can also impersonate investigators that will chase the original scammer, which means that the victim thinking that they are going to obtain justice, is instead being the victim of yet another fraud.
The consequences for victims of romance scams are truly devastating, both financially and emotionally. Some victims have reportedly lost their entire life savings, put a mortgage on their house, or took huge debts. Emotionally, victims are left scarred for life, and can suffer from depression and anxiety.
On a more hopeful note, it’s important to stress the fact that there are a few protections against romance scams. For example, Facebook is trying to put a stop to fake profiles to reduce the number of romance scams’ scheme beginning on their platform; and some banks have the habit of monitoring any unusual banking activities that can be the result of a romance scam, they then contact their clients to investigate on their reasons for such money transfers.
Don’t fall for a romance scam!
Learn how to read the signs when looking for your true love online:
- Be vigilant of rapid and eccentric expressions of love: scammers tend to move fast to make the relationship become very serious very quickly
- Always double-check the pictures you are being sent. You can check photos’ authenticity by running a Google reverse image search. The sooner you find out if a photo is genuine or not, the sooner it will save you from great financial loss and emotional distress
- Be extra careful if someone ask you to move communications away from the original website or app you met
- Never ever, EVER share photos or videos of a private nature. That’s the quickest way to get blackmailed (by a scammer but also by a revengeful ex!)
- Be suspicious if your online love-one always sets you up when you are supposed to meet “IRL”, even if they give you excellent reasons – that is a major red flag that you may be involved in a romance scam
- Be receptive to your family and friends’ advice and warnings: they can often better spot a fraud, because they are not in the love haze
- Note: this may be the biggest and maybe scariest issue of a romance scam: even after being warned of a possible fraud, some victims keep trusting the scammer they fell in love with
- Never ever, EVER give out your personal banking details, no matter who is asking, or the amount. You should especially never send your financial details to someone you’ve never met in person, even if they send you gifts.
The best protection to avoid being romance-scammed is education: knowing how fraudsters set their trap will make it harder for them to trick new victims. Don’t catch a Valentine’s Day fever!