If you thought dating as a teenager was awkward, trying jumping back into the dating scene after you’ve been on the shelf for a while.
It’s not the same as when you were in high school or college, and if you’re entering the dating game after going through a divorce, it can pose some prickly problems that could break your heart even more than what you’ve already been through.
According to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, reports of online romance scams have skyrocketed. Since 2014, the number of complaints filed has more than tripled. In 2018, more than 17,000 people were victims of confidence or romance scams.
Also in 2018, people reported losing $143 million to romance scams – a higher total than for any other type of scam reported to the FTC. And, according to a new FTC Data Spotlight, reports of romance scams continue to rise.
Experts think that this is just the tip of the romance scam iceberg because too many victims feel too ashamed and embarrassed to come forward to report the crime.
A cautionary tale
Two years after her divorce, “Samantha” decided it was time to take a chance on looking for love again.
The mid-40s single mother of two from just outside Atlanta signed up for Match.com at the urging of friends. Almost immediately, she was contacted by “Bill” who was also from Georgia but working as a construction engineer overseas. Like her, he was a divorced parent also looking to rebuild his life.
They appeared to hit it off, but just a few short weeks later, Bill told Samantha his wallet had been stolen and he didn’t have money to feed his two children.
A bit worried, Samantha still sent money. Days later, Bill had another emergency. Samantha sent money again.
Soon she had maxed out her credit cards and when she told Bill she was tapped out, his messages turned ugly and then he disappeared.
At that point, Samantha knew she had been scammed
How a scammer operates
The vast majority of scammers work outside of the United States. Many are located in Africa, but growing numbers are starting to originate in Canada, Britain and Malaysia. Some are career criminals, but many are also college students with low incomes looking for paydays.
Romance scammers often have multiple scams going on at once and may pose as both men and women. The most successful scammers have been known to take hundreds of thousands of dollars from a single victim.
Scammers start by setting up fake social media and dating site profiles.
Sometimes, they use fake names and stock photos. Other times, they steal real people’s names, images, and personal information.
They usually claim to have jobs that keep them outside the country for long periods of time, such as working on an oil rig, serving in the military, or working for a nonprofit.
The scammers seek out lonely and vulnerable victims and start to build an online relationship with them.
It might develop over several months with long conversations, small gifts, shared photos and eventually even declarations of love. But there is never a face-to-face meeting.
Some even rely on pre-written scripts to tell them what to say at a particular point in a relationship. Britain’s Telegraph newspaper reported in 2016 on a woman who was sentenced to two years in prison for writing scripts for romance scams.
Eventually, the scammers start asking for money, usually a small amount for a specific purpose.
Once they know the victim is hooked, they will generate some kind of crisis that requires a large amount of cash to fix. This could be a medical problem, a legal problem or even a tragedy such as the death of a close relative.
They may work with accomplices who pose as friends, doctors, lawyers, or other people who can back up their story.
Scammers typically ask victims for money in a form that’s hard to trace, and victims are often happy to pay because they think helping out their love interest will make it easier for them to finally meet in person.
Instead, the scammer will continue to string the victim along with more requests for money. When the victim figures it out or runs out of money, the scammer disappears.
There are also instances where the scammer “confesses” he is part of a scam to bilk people out of money but insists he has fallen in love with the victim. The victim is often all too willing to believe him, further perpetuating the scam.
You can also be scammed indirectly and not even know about it. Personal photos and videos you post online could be stolen and used to scam others – especially if you’re a good-looking male.
That’s why you should only accept friend requests from people you actually know.
Check out a requestor’s profiles to see how many friends they have, and especially how many friends they have in common with you. If you can’t figure out how they know you, don’t accept their requests, which would give them access to your personal images.
Another way to protect yourself is to run periodic reverse-image searches for your own photos. If you use Facebook, you can also instruct the site to turn on its facial recognition software to find photos of you and make sure they’re legitimate.
You’re more likely to be scammed if…
Anyone can be the victim of a romance scam but some are more vulnerable than others. Those most likely to be targeted include:
- Older women who are divorced or widowed. They are more likely to be emotionally insecure about dating.
- Recent victims of a crisis. A Federal Trade Commission (FTC) study from 2013 found that people are more than two and a half times as likely to be victims of fraud if they’ve been through a “negative life event” in the past two years. Examples include job loss, divorce, the death of a loved one, or a medical crisis in the family.
- Victims who are under 60 years old. While younger people are more technically savvy, they are also much more trusting online.
- Residents in developed nations. Victims can be targeted all over the world, but people in developed nations are much more likely to have money that can be extracted.
- Survivors of abuse. Many romance scam victims have previously been through an abusive relationship. During this experience, they lived in denial, finding ways to excuse the abusive behavior or even blocking out all memory of it. Thus, they were more likely to turn a blind eye to the warning signs of a romance scam.
- Victims of previous scams. Romance scammers like to prey on people who have been victimized before. A study by the University of Exeter in England found that people who have fallen for one scam are consistently more likely to show interest in another. It concluded that up to 20% of the U.K. population is naturally vulnerable to scams.
Real dangers in an online world
According to the FBI, Americans lost over $230 million to confidence fraud and romance scams in 2016.
But many of these crimes often go unreported, so it’s a safe bet that this amount is only a fraction of the overall total.
People can and do lose their entire nest egg with a very low probability that it will ever be recovered.
Aside from financial losses, there are other real dangers posed by romance scammers.
Some scammers resort to blackmail or extortion if they can’t trick their victims into giving them money or helping them commit other crimes.
Cases exist where scammers have obtained nude photos or videos of their victims and then threaten to release them publicly if the victims don’t help them.
In other cases, they simply demand money from the victims in exchange for a promise to keep the photos private.
Scammers have also been known to get victims help them launder stolen money, transport drugs or stolen goods or even scam additional victims. In some instances, victims are so emotionally dependent on the scammers that they will willingly enter into a life of crime as an accomplice of the scammer.
There are also instances of scammers who lure their victims out of the country, where they may be kidnapped, held for ransom, sold into human trafficking or even end up dead.
This can also happen when victims travel abroad to confront a scammer after they realize they’ve been duped.
In a few extreme cases, victims have become so depressed after the fact that they have attempted or committed suicide as well.
The warning signs
The best way to avoid becoming a romance scam victim is to know what to watch for when you enter a relationship. Here are some indicators that you’re dealing with a scammer:
- They try to move the relationship forward quickly. You are a lead, not a relationship and if that lead will not produce quick results, chances are they will move to another person.
- They will try to isolate you. Scammers will suggest taking conversations to another medium such as emails and they will try to get you to minimize the amount of discussion you have with friends or family who may be able to spot a scam more easily.
- They can’t meet you in person. They are overseas, in the military or otherwise not physically available to meet face-to-face.
- They forget key details or don’t use your name. Scammers often have multiple relationships going at any given time, and they will keep the level of detail with each person to a minimum to avoid tripping themselves up. To avoid calling one person by another person’s name, they may refer to you as “sweetie” or “darling” to cover their tracks.
- They just flat out sound too good to be true. Scammers scour profiles to find things that are important to their victims and then play off of those items to make themselves more appealing.
- They ask for private information. This is obvious, but it does happen.
- Emergencies always seem to pop up. Scammers will invent drama and ask you for money to deal with one emergency after another. Robberies, health emergencies, family issues and more followed by an ask for money is a huge red flag.
What you can do to keep from being a victim
Here are some things you can do to keep from being a victim of a romance scammer:
- Ask to meet in person. Your suspicions should be extra high if you’ve attempted to meet several times but the other person always has an excuse and cancels out on you.
- Take it slow. Be suspicious of anyone who wants to go fast.
- Check out their story. The same Internet that was used to find you can also be used as a research tool to see if you can verify what the other person is telling you. If you’re communicating with someone by e-mail, you can check out their address through BeenVerified.com, which maintains lists of email addresses that belong to known scammers.
- Do an image search. Take a person’s profile photos and run them through a reverse image search engine like TinEye or Google Images. If the same photo is posted with multiple identities attached to it, you’re probably being scammed. Conversely, never share intimate photos of yourself that could later be used to blackmail you.
- Ask a friend or family member for advice. If you’ve got any doubts what so ever, get another opinion on whether you are being played or not.
- Don’t send money! If you do, assume you’ll never see it again, even with the promise you’ll be paid back.
If you’ve been scammed
If you’ve been scammed, as soon as you realize it, cut off all contact with the scammer.
If you uncover the scam right after you’ve sent money, you may be able to block the transaction if you act immediately. Contact your bank or the money-transfer service you used and ask if there’s a way to either stop or reverse the transfer of funds.
While it may be tempting, don’t try to get revenge. You’re dealing with a professional criminal and the repercussions could be a lot more than you bargained for.
Instead, report the crime to the police and to the FBI. You can file online complaints with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center and the FTC Complaint Assistant. If any part of the scam took place by mail, report it as mail fraud to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.
Consider counseling to help you work through the psychological and financial impacts that you have experienced.
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