Romance scams continue to be a major problem. As bad as they were prior to the pandemic, these scams 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. According to the FBI in 2021 24,299 people in the United States were victims of romance scams losing a billion dollars which was a 59% increase over the money lost in 2020.
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.
Recently Jeffersonking Anyanwu of Utah was convicted of operating a romance scam that stole 8.4 million dollars from more than 350 people. Anyanwu was sentenced to 63 months in prison. Five other codefendants who worked with Anyanwu in the scam have previously pleaded guilty and were already sentenced to prison. Anyanwu and his cohorts used dating apps, social media and even online games to contact their victims. In many instances they posed as an Army General stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
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.
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.
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