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Illustration by Security Management

Targeting All Lonely Hearts

All’s fair in love and war, or so fraudsters think.

Romance scams are easier than ever through social media and online dating, and the schemes can be very profitable for fraudsters. In the first seven months of 2021, the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) received more than 1,800 complaints about online romance scams, which together resulted in losses of more than $133 million. In the U.S. state of Arizona alone, there was a 65 percent increase in reported losses from romance scams in 2021 compared to 2020.

Although data from the fourth quarter of 2021 has yet to be fully measured, estimates of U.S. romance scam costs could top $500 million last year.

It is likely that the actual numbers of scams and losses are much higher. Victims may be hesitant to report being taken advantage of due to embarrassment, shame, or humiliation, the FBI said. But romance scams can affect anyone—victims span wide demographic ranges, across age groups, regions, education level, and gender.

Analysis of figures from the U.S. Federal Trade Commission found that romance scam losses for the first three quarters of 2021 had already exceeded their full 2020 amounts across six out of seven age groups. Those aged 60 to 69 saw the biggest losses overall—$84 million.

The scams are creative, widespread, and convincing, as fraudsters take advantage of victims’ yearning for connection.

One so-called “Tinder Swindler”—Shimon Hayut—conned dozens of victims out of an estimated $10 million by posing as a wealthy, jet-setting diamond dealer. He would then claim his life was in grave danger and demand the victims send him money, The Washington Post reported. (There is now a documentary about the scheme available on Netflix, and Hayut has now been banned from dating app Tinder.)

Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, Osagie Aigbonohan allegedly used a range of fake names, dating apps, and social media networks to try to con 670 people. He targeted a woman and built up a relationship with her for 10 months before begging her for money to help him restart operations at an overseas business. This led to fraudulent transfers of £9,500 ($13,000), according to ZDNet. Another victim was terminally ill, and Aigbonohan continued to pursue her for money after she died, the UK National Crime Agency said. Aigbonohan was sentenced to 28 months in jail in January 2022.

In South Africa, police arrested a gang of eight men who reportedly used sob stories to lure at least 100 women to give them money. Over the course of the scam, victims lost close to $7 million.

And an Italian businessman was kidnapped in Ivory Coast in 2020 after being lured by a love interest who posed as a young woman online, the BBC reported. Originally, Claudio Formenton—who was abducted in November 2020 and rescued by police three days later—said he was in the country for missionary work, but prosecutors allege he may have been a victim of entrapment by someone using a fake social media profile.

The multinational nature of social media and dating apps allows scammers to target victims thousands of miles away. The South African fraudsters targeted many victims in the United States, for example.

“Romance fraud is a particularly callous offence, involving exploitation of an individual’s emotional needs and caring qualities, to extract money from them,” said James Lewis of the UK's Crown Prosecution Service. “People should be particularly vigilant over the coming month as we head towards Valentine’s Day and more people seek a partner.”

So how do these schemes often work?

To start, a scammer usually makes initial contact through dating apps or a social media site, and then he or she gains the victim’s confidence and trust by establishing an online relationship. From there, he or she can start pressuring the victim into sending money, gift cards, or other services to help the fraudster out.

In a new spin on the trend, romance scams can double up with investment scams. According to a public service announcement from the FBI, the fraudster can claim to have knowledge of a cryptocurrency investment or trading opportunity that could pay off, and then direct the victim to a fraudulent website or application to invest. After sharing a small payoff to increase trust in the scheme, the scammer will pressure victims to invest larger amounts of money quickly. Once the victim has bought in, the scammer will stop communicating.

“As is often the case with such fraud schemes, everything is made to look legitimate,” INTERPOL noted in a news alert. “Screenshots are provided, domain names are eerily similar to real websites, and customer service agents pretend to help victims choose the right products. One day, however, all contact stops, and victims are locked out of the account. They’re left confused, hurt, and worried that they’ll never see their money again.”

According to Patrick Wyman, a supervisory special agent in the FBI’s Washington Field Office, romance fraudsters are excellent at building rapport quickly, and they try to isolate victims from their relatives or friends who could detect that something is amiss.

Wyman shared 10 top warning signs of romance scams with AARP:

  1. A fraudster will profess love too quickly, often professing undying affection after barely a week of texting back and forth.
  2. Fraudsters get flirty, using over-the-top language and pet names.
  3. They are convincing liars, cooking up stories of why they cannot meet in person—military deployments overseas or working on an offshore oil rig are common excuses, according to Norton.
  4. They are catfishing, using someone else’s photos to hide their identity. A reverse-image search of dating app profile photos might reveal a stock image source.
  5. They are two-timers, frequently pursuing multiple victims simultaneously, often through different aliases.
  6. They promise to visit in person…
  7. …But their visits are always postponed due to an unforeseen emergency or delay.
  8. They need funds to fix a problem, asking for gift cards, prepaid cards, wire transfers, or cryptocurrency.
  9. They switch up their scams, converting romance scam victims into money laundering mules.
  10. They won’t spend the time to woo an uncertain victim. Fraudsters move in if a victim doesn’t quickly send them funds.

So, are you looking for love but finding fraud instead? The FBI and Tinder offer a few tips for avoiding romance scams:

  • Be careful about what you post and make public online (both for romance scams and other social engineering issues). Scammers will study your information to better target victims, such as professing a love of skiing after seeing a target’s winter vacation photos from the slopes.
  • Research the person’s photo and profile using online searches to see if the image, name, or details have been copied or stolen.
  • Go slowly and ask a lot of questions. As Wyman suggested, think like a detective.
  • Beware if the individual seems too perfect for you or quickly asks you to leave a dating or social media site and communicate directly. “This could be an indicator that they are attempting to remove traces of the interaction and get more of your personal information like your phone number, which can be lucrative for a scammer,” according to a Tinder fact sheet.
  • Beware of the individual tries to isolate you from friends or family.
  • Beware if the individual requests inappropriate photos or financial information that could later be used to extort you.
  • Excuses excuses—if you haven’t met the person after a few months, you have good reason to be suspicious. Consider asking the person to video chat or voice call to help confirm their identity, recommends dating app Bumble. Although, even real-life meetings require some vigilance, Tinder said, as some scammers might meet up but then request access to a victim’s financial resources while they wait for red tape to clear on their investments or business dealings.
  • Never send money (or cryptocurrency) to anyone you have only communicated with online or by phone.