Consumers need to be wary of the inauthentic online relationships that end up costing victims hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Falling in love with a con artist has consistently been ranked as one of the most expensive scams for victims who have reported their experiences to Fraud.org. In 2016, sweetheart swindles were the 9th-most reported form of fraud, and the most expensive for victims, with a median loss of $2,000.
“In a typical romance scam, victims are approached online, through a dating website, a social media platform such as Facebook, or another type of online forum. Scammers go to great lengths to cultivate romantic interest with their victims,” said John Breyault, NCL vice president of public policy, telecommunications and fraud. “They nurture the relationship, build trust, and then convince victims to send money, sometimes days or even months into the new ‘relationship.’”
Once a sense of trust is developed, the con artist asks for money to be sent to help them out of a dangerous or difficult situation. Scammers often run the same game on multiple victims at once, claiming that they need money to come visit their new friend-victim, or for medical bills, legal help, or some other unexpected emergency. If the victim agrees to pay, there are inevitably additional requests for money to cover other fictitious expenses until the victim comes to realize it is a scam and stops paying, or worse, runs out of money to give.
In a complaint received at Fraud.org last month, “Jennifer,” a 32-year-old woman from Wisconsin, reported losing $35,000 to a sweetheart scammer. Her story is similar to the typical romance swindle: Jennifer met a man named “Nick” on the dating website OKCupid. Nick claimed to be from Australia but living in Nebraska. Shortly into their online relationship, Nick had to go to Africa for a business trip.
While he was there, Nick was robbed and needed $3,000-$4,000 to buy a plane ticket to return to the United States. Having developed romantic feelings for Nick, she obliged and sent the cash to help him. Following this, Nick told Jennifer he had a string of more unfortunate, and fake, events—getting arrested, needing a diplomatic passport, his mother was sick and dying, contemplating suicide, having a heart attack, and getting arrested again. Throughout all of this, Jennifer agreed to his requests for cash through credit card advances, iTunes gift cards, and even sending iPhones. In all, Jennifer is now in credit card debt for $31,000, not including all the cash she wired to her sweetheart.
“Stories like these are both heartbreaking and unfortunately typical of what we hear from victims,” said Breyault. “Millions of consumers meet friends and find romance online, but there are a determined group of criminals out there eager to relieve victims of their cash in the name of love. The best defense consumers have is to learn about the signs of a scam in order to spot them before it’s too late.”
Red flags that your relationship might be a costly set-up to a scam:
• The “relationship” becomes romantic extremely quickly, with quick pronouncements of love or close friendship.
• The person you’re communicating with makes excuses about not being able to speak by phone or meet in person.
• Your suitor requests that you wire money or cash a check or money order on their behalf and send them the funds.