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Heartbreakers, dream fakers, money takers: Romance scams are rising
Feb 14, 2022

Heartbreakers, dream fakers, money takers: Romance scams are rising

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The pandemic pushed a lot of folks to seek romantic connections online — and sparked a boom in romance scams and catfishing.

During the pandemic, many people reached out for human connection online. With that also came romance scams and “catfishing,” which is when someone pretends to be a different person or looks different online compared to real life.

According to a recent report by background check company BeenVerified, romance scam text messages and calls increased by 197% since the start of the pandemic. Richard Gargan is the author of that report and walked us through the process some romance scammers use. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Richard Gargan: They’re very charming, they’re giving lots of compliments and they will just build a relationship with you over two weeks. But then eventually they will lead into a crisis. They will need money, they need some health bill paid or they’ve got into trouble, they’ve lost their job. And so it’s really tragic that, obviously, there’s lots of feelings involved at this point, and that’s when the scammer really puts on the pressure. And the person has feelings and wants to help the person out, which is a natural reaction. So this is why the [Federal Trade Commission] reported that the median loss from these scams was 10 times higher than any other type of scam. I think the median loss was $2,500.

Kimberly Adams: You know, you sound genuinely shocked.

Gargan: The most shocking thing to me is that it was older Americans who were often targeted. And just the scale of this is incredible. The FTC reported $304 million were lost to romance scams in 2020, and that surged by 50% compared to 2019.

Adams: You said older Americans seem to be particularly susceptible to this type of fraud. Any other groups, and why older Americans?

Richard Gargan.
Richard Gargan (Courtesy Gargan)

Gargan: I think older Americans are less used to dating online. And therefore, when the pandemic pushed people to socialize online, that included online dating. And if you’re dating for the first time, I think you’re just more at risk because you’re less aware of some of the pitfalls that can happen specifically online. Catfishing — people will be aware of this, where people have fake images and fake profiles. It’s easy to be taken in when you’ve not done it before. I think there were some groups in particular, and there was no gender bias — both men and women were susceptible. So there was, cuts across the whole demographics of the country, really.

Adams: Many people will know what catfishing is, but are other types of romance scams cropping up among your findings?

Gargan: Some of the most interesting were romance scams related to cryptocurrencies and digital assets. So what would happen is the scammer would present themselves as a really dynamic multimillionaire. And the person would be asking, “OK, how did you make your money?” And they would tell them about their crypto investments. And so they would persuade the target to buy some of these digital assets — maybe it’s [a nonfungible token] or a cryptocurrency — and send it to their investment website. And obviously, this investment website is owned by the scammer. The scammer might even then kind of pivot and say, “OK, now you can withdraw.” But of course, at some point, you will get involved with something like, “Oh, the customer service won’t let you withdraw,” or “There’s taxation to pay” or some other problem of why you can’t get your money back.

Adams: You know, this is really interesting because here you have a relatively new technology like NFTs already being deployed by some of these scammers.

Gargan: It’s incredible how they’ve pivoted toward the thing that people are interested in, and the pandemic gave the scammers very legitimate-sounding reasons why they couldn’t meet up with you. For example, they might have said, “Oh, I’ve tested positive for COVID, so we can’t meet up.” You’ve just got to be careful when you send money to people. I mean, I don’t like sending money to people at the best of times. But obviously, you know, definitely don’t do it if you’ve not met the person before.

Adams: I’m thinking about all of these filters on people’s faces that often get used in dating app photos, where someone is smoothing out their features and you can change your hair color and all of these different things. I wonder how that might play into the sophistication of these scams at this point.

Gargan: That’s very interesting. I mean, it’s terrifying as well. If you go on to a website called thispersondoesnotexist.com, it will generate a random image of someone, which doesn’t exist. And so one of the things people can do to stop being a victim of romance scams is to do a reverse image search to see if this image has been used before. But of course, if it’s an [artificial intelligence]-generated image or if it’s been highly altered, that’s not going to help you. So yeah, definitely the incidence of using fake images and retouching and that kind of thing, it makes it more difficult. And, you know, we’re getting to the stage now where you can even have AI videos and deep fakes and that kind of thing. So at some points, you do wonder to yourself, “When will we know that someone online is who they say they are?”

Adams: In general, how can users of online dating sites spot red flags that may signal a romance scam?

Gargan: I mean, one of the biggest red flags is when they ask for money, and they’ll often ask for gift cards because they’re especially difficult to trace. Often the people will present themselves in an amazing fashion where, not only are they rich but they’re handsome, and they’re really complimenting you every day, and they’re very quick to declare their love for you. And, you know, most people would be kind of weirded out by this, but obviously, they’re doing their own filtering. They want you to be weirded out because they’re after the people who are vulnerable, who are isolated, and those people won’t be weirded out. Don’t click on any of the links they send you. They’re often websites owned by the scammers, and so if they’re trying to send you a gift, they’ll say, “We’re sending you this gift. Can you pay the import tax? And here’s the link to pay the tax.” Well obviously, that’s their website. So anything involving a link is quite a red flag, really.

Adams: That’s so fascinating that these scammers also want to filter you out if they don’t think they can scam you.

Gargan: Absolutely. We found this on a few of the different scams we’ve been analyzing. So often what they’ll do on emails, for example, is they will purposely have spelling mistakes in the email. And when someone reads these scam emails from, you know, it might be a prince in Nigeria who needs money or something. People will think, “Oh, this is a terribly written email.” But it’s terribly written on purpose because they want to filter out the people who are not going to fall for the scam, and they want the people who are vulnerable and who are more likely to fall for it, to spend their time on. They don’t want to waste time on you. They’re then filtered out, and the scammers can then focus their time on the particularly lonely people or the particularly vulnerable people. So it’s very scary.

Gargan’s report has more information on how the pandemic has changed romance scams and more stories of people who lost their hearts and their money to them.

Many of the red flags he highlighted in our discussion are echoed by Tinder, which encourages all users to verify their identities by going through a selfie verification system that will analyze your selfie and compare it to the profile photos you’ve uploaded. Match does something similar.

The gay dating app Grindr also provided us with helpful examples of what a message from a scammer might look like. In general, the company recommends that its users not click on any “suspicious links.” (But no need to be suspicious of our links.)

And, remember those numbers Gargan cited from the Federal Trade Commission about the money lost to romance scams, which he said reached a record $304 million in 2020? Shortly after we spoke, the 2021 numbers came out. The FTC reports people lost $547 million to romance scams last year, up 80% from 2020. Be careful out there, folks.

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