As Valentine’s Day approaches, love is in the air — and romance scams are apparently everywhere.
According to the reports of these online scams have nearly tripled in the past years — in 2020 alone victims lost around $304 million from being swindled by their cyber sweetheart. This just grazes the surface of online dating scams statistics.
What is a romance scam?
A romance scam, also known as an online dating scam, is when a person gets tricked into believing they’re in a romantic relationship with someone they met online. In fact, their other half is a cybercriminal using a fake identity to gain enough of their victim’s trust to ask — or blackmail — them for money.
How romance scams work
Oftentimes, a romance scammer starts on dating sites or apps. But scammers have increasingly begun on social media, too. After connecting with the victim through a fake profile, they'll strike up a conversation and start building a relationship by regularly chatting with them. Once the victim starts to trust the romance scammer and believes they have a truthful relationship, the cybercriminal will make up a story, ask the victim for money, and vanish.
Warning signs: Lies romance scammers tell
How can you identify a scammer? Well, you probably have a sense of what's considered normal behavior online. But it might be hard to see through an online dating scam when emotions are involved.
If you want to know how to tell if someone is scamming you online, here are some telltale signs a cybercriminal may be the one sweeping you off your feet.
They’re far, far away
One of the first giveaways of a romance scammer is their background. Fakers often pose as someone who is stationed abroad to create a reason for why they can't meet in person.
Since their story is so interesting, be sure to keep a close eye on any inconsistencies in it.
Their profile seems too good to be true
A legitimate dating profile usually has plenty of photos of the person in different situations, with one or two that show the person's whole body, not just part of their face. The individual might also include links to their Instagram or Facebook accounts.
In contrast, a dating profile might be fake if the person doesn't list any details. Or maybe their interests and hobbies just about exactly match yours — the similarities might be too good to be true.
The relationship moves fast
Romance scammers want to act fast before their targets catch on to their tactics. For this reason, they like to gain your trust right out the gates. Some common approaches include:
They profess their love to you surprisingly quickly.
They ask you to marry them.
They make a promise you will see one another.
They ask to move communications off of the dating site — you aren't seeing other people anyway, right?
Many online dating sites offer some safety features, and if you move your conversation off them to talk using text messages or other chat options, you lose them. Plus, the person will have your phone number, which could make it harder to cut communication.
In any event, it’s a good idea to pay attention to your conversations and consider the following red flags:
The person’s messages look like they could be copy-and-pasted into any conversation.
The conversation doesn't flow or make sense.
Grammar and spelling are way off.
They come up with different excuses when asked to video chat.
But they break promises to visit
Romance scammers want to keep their identities a secret. One way to keep you from questioning their identity is a promise to come visit. They may even have you pay for plane tickets or other travel costs. But they'll cancel at the last minute, providing an elaborate reason for why they can't see you after all.
They claim they need money
If your online love interest asks you for money and you haven’t even met them, beware. A romance scammer may ask you to send money for things like:
Travel expenses like a plane ticket or Visa.
Medical expenses like surgeries.
Family or personal emergencies.
And they usually have a sob story to back up their request.
An alternate money scam to watch for: They may send you money! This could rope you into a "money mule" scheme, whereby the scammer asks to deposit money into your bank account, distribute the funds to other people, or deliver packages. In fact, these requests could be tied to money laundering.
10 tips to avoid romance scammers and protect yourself
Pay attention to red flags.
Evaluate your online presence.
Approach relationships slowly.
Set up a phone or video chat early.
Do your own snooping.
Outsource their asks for help.
Ask someone you trust for a second opinion.
Stop communicating and report the incident.
Send compromising pictures.
Reveal too much personal information
Pay someone you haven't met.
Feel safe because you made the first contact
Believe everything they say
Buy plane tickets or gift cards
Move communication off of dating sites early.
Accept money from someone you haven't met.
Online dating scams can often end with victims losing money and, in some cases, even being pulled into criminal activity. Besides the financial costs, there may be emotional costs, too. You may feel heartbroken, depressed, or embarrassed after someone you trusted scammed you.
That's why it's important to know how to outsmart a romance scammer and how to act fast if you think you’ve been scammed.
Some of the signs that an Internet contact may be developing a relationship with you in order to obtain an immigrant visa through marriage, or financial gain/identity theft are:
Initial contact through unsolicited requests via Skype, Facebook, Viber, on-line gaming, or other means
The person uses on-line dating sites to meet other foreign nationals
Lack of real shared interests
Requests for relationships between a young man and a much older woman. (In the middle east cultural context it is extremely unusual for an man to have a legitimate relationship with a woman even slightly older – and especially unusual to have a first-time relationship with someone beyond child bearing age.)
Declarations of love within days or weeks of the initial contact
Proposals or discussions of marriage soon after initial contact
Requests to send money or provide access to financial accounts
Request to get married in third country with a single witness because “it’s easier to get married quickly there.” Note that weddings in middle east countries are major social occasions, and it is extremely unusual for large numbers of family and friends not to be present at the wedding
Once engaged, married, or an immigrant visa petition is filed, suddenly starts missing scheduled appointments to chat or call
1. Be aware of the warning signs
Simply knowing how a romance scammer operates can help you identify and avoid one. Remember some of the red flags and lies romance scammers tell:
They’re far, far away.
Their profile seems too good to be true.
The relationship moves fast.
They break promises to visit.
They claim they need money.
They ask for specific payment methods.
2. Evaluate your online presence
For this reason, consider keeping your online dating profiles anonymous by using different usernames on sites or even different emails to protect your privacy. Also, be careful what you make public on social media.
3. Approach online relationships slowly
The internet can be an incredible place for community, developing friendships, and sometimes even relationships. But it’s always important to take these relationships slowly, vet your new companions thoroughly, and be wary if answers don’t add up.
4. Set up a phone or video chat early
Seeing someone’s face can be a sure-fire way to determine whether they’re real or fake. For this reason, set up a phone or video chat early on in your communications with an online love interest. If they dodge the opportunity, they may be a romance scammer.
5. Don’t send compromising pictures
It's important to protect yourself online, so never send compromising photos or videos of yourself to someone, especially if you haven’t met them in person. These could be used as blackmail later.
6. Do your own snooping, like a reverse image search
In the age of social media and online dating, everyone has a digital presence waiting to view. Do your homework on your cyber sweetheart by viewing their social media profiles. If their profile is pretty bare or they have no connections, take it a step further with a reverse image search to see whether their photos are on other sites. To do this:
Right-click an image of the person.
Visit images.google.com and paste the image.
Google will show you the websites where the image appears online. If it shows up on a stock photo site or seems to belong to someone else entirely, then it could be part of a scam.
7. Never pay someone you haven’t met, especially someone online
Don't give out your financial information, top off a cash reload card, or send gifts or money to someone you haven't met face to face. Never wire money to a stranger or pay anyone with gift cards.
8. If they ask you for help, refer them elsewhere
Especially if your other cyber half is located outside of the U.S., be sure to refer them to a U.S. consulate or embassy if they ask for help or money. It’s a reasonable response, since authorities would be able to provide better help, especially if you just met them.
9. Ask someone you trust for a second opinion
When your emotions run so deeply with someone, it’s hard to face the reality that they’re not who you think they are. If you ever have an inkling you’re caught up in an online dating scam, step back and ask a trusted friend or family member to give a second opinion about your relationship. They may see some warning signs you didn’t.
10. Stop communicating and report the incident
If you’re suspicious or sure that you’re being scammed, cut off communication immediately and report the activity. Always consider the possibility of it being a scam, even if you contacted them first.
How to report an online dating scam
It may be nearly impossible to recover money after you've been scammed. But reporting these incidents helps federal investigators look for commonalities and may help lead them to perpetrators.
For these reasons, take the following steps if you suspect you’ve been scammed:
Contact your bank right away if you’ve sent a romance scammer money.
Collect any records you have of your online relationship, including conversations and transactions.
File a police report.
The unfortunate truth is that too many people have been a part of a love story that never ends in a happily ever after. Some of the proof is in these online dating scam statistics. Romance scams on the rise Loneliness — especially during COVID-19 isolation periods — and the development of new technologies have contributed to the rise of romance scams in the past years.
About half of all romance scam reports to the FTC since 2019 involve social media, usually on Facebook or Instagram. In the first six months of 2020, victims reported a record high of losing almost $117 million to scams that started on social media. (FTC, October 2020)
Over 35,000 victims reported that social media was the medium or tool used to facilitate online crimes. (FBI, 2020 Internet Crime Report)
The number of romance scams people report to the FTC has nearly tripled since 2015. (FTC, February 2021)
In 2020, more than 32,000 consumers filed a report with the FTC about romance scams. (FTC, February 2021)
Nearly 24,000 people fell victim to confidence/romance scams in 2020. (FBI, 2020 Internet Crime Report)
The real price tags of online dating Romance scams can affect your emotional wellbeing and sense of trust, and can also be costly and irreversible.
Stalkerware is trending up The use stalkerware, a software that enables someone to monitor a person's device without their knowledge, is another facet of romance scams that’s on the rise.
Falling in love can be great. But before you let someone steal your heart online, keep these romance scam warning signs and online dating pointers top of mind. After all, you don’t want your love story to end in a cybercrime — everyone deserves a happily ever after.