Federal law enforcement recently arrested Mona Faiz Montrage on charges related to operating multiple romance scams in which she is accused of stealing more than two million dollars from her elderly victims. Montrage is a popular Instagram influencer who uses the name Haija4Reall and has had as many as 3.4 million Instagram followers. As with all romance scams, Montrage is accused of convincing her victims into believing they were in a serious romantic relationship and then luring them into sending money to her under a variety of pretenses including payments to assist a fake army officer in Afghanistan. In one particularly unusual instance, Montrage is accused of using her real name in establishing the romance scam and then sending the victim in the United States a tribal marriage certificate that indicated that she and the victim were married in Ghana. The victim later sent Montrage $89,000 to help with what Montrage told him were costs associated with her father’s farm in Ghana.
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. In 2022, nearly 70,000 people reported a romance scam to the FTC, and reported losses hit a staggering $1.3 billion and as large as this figure is, it is probably understated as many victims out of embarrassment don’t report being scammed.
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.
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.”
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