In the past five years, people have lost a staggering $1.3 billion to romance scams, according to the Federal Trade Commission – including a record $547 million in 2021. That’s a nearly 80% increase from 2020, the agency said.
Seniors lose the most
People 70 and older reported the highest individual median losses, at $9,000. Seldom is any of that money recovered. So, the best advice from the experts is to beware and be careful.
How Scammers Operate
Scammers use pictures stolen from the web, build fake profiles and generally get around to asking for money – generally with sob stories.
“These scammers’ stories might involve a sick child or a temporary inability to get to their money for a whole range of reasons,” the FTC says. “People who lost money to a romance scammer often report sending money repeatedly: they believe they’re helping someone they care about. But it’s all a lie.”
People who lost money to a romance scammer often report sending money repeatedly: they believe they’re helping someone they care about. But it’s all a lie.”
And only one in three victims actually reports the scam says David McClellan, founder of Social Catfish, a website that helps you verify that people who are they say they are online, using photos, email addresses, phone numbers and email addresses.
…at least half of victims have not been on a dating site.
Gift cards are the favorite method of scammers getting people to send them money because they are virtually untraceable, but recently scammers have also increasingly turned to cryptocurrency.
McClellan says at least half of victims have not been on a dating site. They been targeted randomly by people who say they saw their picture somewhere and was attracted to them. He says on average a romance scam last six months.
The Dangers of Romance Scams
“It’s not like a scam where maybe you click on the wrong link or you respond to a text message or you accidentally in the moment just make a wrong decision,” he says. “These people are groomed over long periods of time. And there’s a lot of manipulation that goes into this. There are conversations happening potentially for hours every single day for six months.”
Robert Gilliland, managing director and senior wealth advisor at Concenture Wealth Management in Houston, Texas, says once people realize they are being scammed, they should seek help immediately, “whether that’s family members or trusted advisors.”
“You need to talk to your financial advisor, you need to talk to your banker, you need to make sure that everyone’s aware of what you think might be happening,” he says. “And make sure that they’re there to help you. The other thing that you can do is – use the hotlines for elder abuse. Scams are a form of elder abuse. You need to reach out and get them involved to help you out.”
Safeguard your Information
Gilliland says if you think the scammer has gotten access to your credit card, you need to put a hold on your card.
“The biggest thing that that we do on the financial side if a client called and said I think I’ve been scammed, we put heightened supervision on the account,” he says. “Before any money moves, or does anything, there’s an added layer of scrutiny on top of those accounts.”
“If they authorized and sent the money, all they can do is contact authorities,” Gilliland says. “There’s no other way to get it.” Once it’s done, you are most likely never going to see that money again.”
The scams generally end when the person realizes they’ve been scammed, the scammer can’t get any more money out of the victims or family or friends get involved and perform an intervention, McClellan says.
“If you ask me for money, there’s nothing that’s against the law,” he says. “So, a lot of times law enforcement looks at it like these people were dumb. They actually even deter people sometimes from filing a police report. So, the first thing is that you have a right to file a police report even if the police don’t want to. Not enough of this stuff gets reported, and it’s extremely important.”
A New Scammer trick
One of the more recent tactics the scammers are using is to not to ask for money but wait for you to offer to send money. They might tell you that they have a contract, but have had credit card issues, McClellan says. “They send you this contract for a million dollars, for example, and they try to get you to offer ‘let me help you out until you get back on your feet. You can pay me back next week. And then this and you never get your money back.”
Romance Scam Prevention
- Run a reverse image search. Most of the scammers use a photo lifted from the internet, so this is one of the easiest things to do, says McClellan. Google has info here about reverse image searches.
- Never give money to someone you haven’t met. “Just never send money,” McClellan says.
- Requests for gift cards are a red flag. “If someone’s asking you for gift cards and large-scale gift cards, like five $500 Visa gift cards, that’s a pretty clear indication,” says Gilliland. “Do not do that.”
- Demand a video chat or an in-person date. “You should be able to video chat in today’s day and age, there are tons of apps you can even use for video chatting, even if you have poor Wi Fi,” McClellan says.
Rodney A. Brooks is the former deputy managing editor/Money at USA TODAY. His retirement columns appear in U.S. News & World Report and Senior Planet.com. He has written for National Geographic, The Washington Post and USA TODAY. The author of “Fixing the Racial Wealth Gap,” Brooks has testified before the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging. His website is www.rodneyabrooks.com.
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