Romance scams, which have been a problem for a long time have increased dramatically during the Coronavirus pandemic. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Americans lost more money to romance scams last year than to any other scam and the situation is getting more serious. All in all, the FTC reports that Americans reported losing a record 304 million dollars to romance scams in 2020. It is also important to note that romance scams are not limited to the United States, but occur worldwide. Figures from Hong Kong show the incidents of romance scams have also increased there dramatically in the past year. Romance scams generally follow a familiar pattern with the scammers establishing relationships with people, generally women, online through various legitimate dating websites and social media using fake names, locations and images. The scammers often pose as Americans working abroad or in the military serving abroad. In many cases, the scammers steal the identity and photo of a real person serving in the military, which has been recently reported to have been done many times by scammers using the name and photo of U.S. Navy officer Mike Sency. After building trust with their victims scammers ask for money to help them through some sort of emergency. Americans lost more than 201 million dollars to romance scams last year and the instances of romance scams have increased more than 20% this year. Often victims of the scam are embarrassed and don’t even report the crime so these figures are most likely lower than in actuality.
Recently, Eugene Johnson Jr. of Virginia was convicted of fraud in connection with an online dating scam in which Johnson, who used a number of aliases, described himself to his victims as a widowed Marine with a young son. Johnson lured his eight victims into sending him almost $300,000 under a wide variety of false pretenses. He will be sentenced on September 17 and faces a maximum sentence of as much as twenty years.
While anyone can be the victim of a romance scam, according to the FBI, the elderly, women and people who have been widowed are particular vulnerable. Most romance scams are online and involve some variation of the person you meet through an online dating site or social media quickly falling in love with you and then, under a wide variety of pretenses, asking for money. Since 2019 approximately half of the reported instances of the romance scam have started on social media, particularly Facebook and Instagram rather than on dating sites or dating apps according to the FTC. One particularly scary statistic is that people over 70 years old victimized in a romance scam lose, on average, about $10,000 as contrasted to $2,800 for younger victims of romance scams.
There are various red flags to help you identify romance scams. I describe many of them in detail in my book “The Truth About Avoiding Scams.” The most important thing to remember is to always be skeptical of anyone who falls in love with you quickly online without ever meeting you and early into the relationship who then asks you to send money to assist them with a wide range of phony emergencies.
Here are a few other things to look for to help identify an online romance scam. Often their profile picture is stolen from a modeling website on the Internet. If the picture looks too professional and the person looks too much like a model, you should be wary. You also can check on the legitimacy of photographs by seeing if they have been used elsewhere by doing a reverse image search using Google or websites such as tineye.com. Particular phrases, such as “Remember the distance or color does not matter, but love matters a lot in life” is a phrase that turns up in many romance scam emails. Also be on the lookout for bad spelling and grammar as many of the romance scammers claim to be Americans, but are actually foreigners lying about where they are and who they are. Of course you should be particularly concerned if someone falls in love with you almost immediately. Often they will ask you to use a webcam, but will not use one themselves. This is another red flag. One thing you may want to do is ask them to take a picture of themselves holding up a sign with their name on it. In addition, ask for a number of pictures because generally when the scammers are stealing pictures of models from websites, they do not have many photographs. Ask for the picture to be at a particular place that you designate to further test them. If you meet someone through a dating website, be particularly wary if they ask you to leave the dating service and go “offline.”
You also should be particularly wary of online relationships with people in the military because while many real military personnel do use social media and dating websites, they are a favorite disguise for scammers.
For those of you receiving the Scam of the day through an email, I just want to remind you that if you want to see the ever increasing list of Coronavirus scams go to the first page of the http://www.scamicide.com website and click on the tab at the top of the page that indicates “Coronavirus Scams.” Scamicide was recently cited by the New York Times as one of three top sources for information about Coronavirus related scams.
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