Catch Of The Week: Romance Scams

Online imposters break hearts and bank accounts. Courtesy/FBI

By BECKY RUTHERFORD
Los Alamos

It’s almost Valentine’s Day; don’t get your heart (and wallet) broken by an online romance scam. 

According to news reports out of Portland, Ore., a romance scammer recently robbed an 80-year-old widower out of $200,000. The man was swindled by an unknown scammer who stole a Florida woman’s identity, then befriended the man through an online dating site. 

The scammer then convinced him to invest money in a “business opportunity”. The scammer convinced the man they were in a long-distance relationship, and then persuaded him to support an art gallery in Florida by pretending to seek investors to cover transportation costs to ship a 500-ton marble sculpture of a lion from China. 

According to the scammer, the man would remake his investment, plus a profit after the sculpture sold. The man made multiple payments over five months totaling more than $200,000.  He lost the entire investment, and investigators have been unable to track the scammer down.

Like so many other online scams, romance scams are growing, and according to new FTC data, the number of romance scams reported by victims has nearly tripled since 2015. The total amount of money people reported losing to this scam in 2019 is six times higher than it was five years ago – $33 million lost to romance scammers in 2015, up to $201 million in 2019. Ouch, love truly bites!

Romance scammers usually start by stealing someone else’s identity to create a profile. Once they get you reeled in and talking to them, they will send you flattering messages and try to connect with you and gain your trust.

Commonly, they will claim to be a doctor, soldier, or oil rig worker living overseas. They really want to make plans to visit you, but then something comes up, and they need money or gift cards to “help them out”. Never send money or gifts to someone you have never actually met; it’s a romance scam. 

What can you do if you think you are communicating with a romance scammer? Here’s some advice from the FTC:

  • Halt communications with the person immediately;
  • Do a google search for the type of job the person claims to have; have other people heard similar stories?  You could search for “US Army scammer” or “oil rig scammer”;
  • You can do a reverse image search on Google for their profile pic and see what other hits get.  If it’s associated with other names, or if details don’t match up, it’s a scam;
  • Never wire money to someone you haven’t met, and don’t pay them with gift cards either. If someone is asking you to send them money or gift cards, report it to the FTC here;
  • Only use reputable, nationally recognized dating websites. But be warned … scammers may be using these. too; and
  • Like most online scams, there will always be clues. These scammers are generally based overseas; they may use odd turns of phrase or incorrect grammar/spelling. If something seems off, it is.

I got the chance to chat with Ronnie Tokazowski, a Senior Threat Researcher at Agari (an innovative provider of email security solutions), to get his take on romance scams.

“One of the things we need to realize about romance scams is that there are a lot more moving parts than people realize. While we may be quick to assume that victims are aware of their actions, our research shows that this is quite the opposite,” Tokazowski said. “Victims truly think they are in an actual relationship, and in many cases are able to repeat the fake facts from scammers back to law enforcement. With law enforcement getting partial stories from victims who think they are actually in a relationship doing business transactions for a spouse, it becomes extremely difficult to track and cluster this activity. If you’re being asked to move money from one type of bank to another or are constantly sending money to someone without receiving anything back or have been told to pick up gift cards as a type of payment, chances are that you’re part of a scam. Make sure to file a complaint at ic3.gov so law enforcement can track this.”

Romance scams can happen to anyone at any time. Victims may not want to talk about it due to embarrassment, shame, or humiliation. If you suspect a loved one is a victim of a romance scam, do everything you can to help them, and do it from a place of kindness; don’t make them feel bad or stupid. 

Romance scammers know what they are doing; they target the most emotionally vulnerable people they can find.  Victims may have been in abusive relationships, recently divorced, or elderly, and they likely feel very alone. The romance scammer makes them feel good and wanted, and this can be so distracting they don’t get that it’s a scam. There are many free resources online from the FTC that you can use, check them out here.

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