Sure, you can find love online. You could also find yourself falling for a clever con artist who will gain your trust and rob you blind. It happens all too often.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) received more than 25,000 complaints about romance scams in 2019. According to new data released this week, victims reported losing $201 million to these scams last year, up nearly 40% from 2018. For the past two years, more money has been lost to romance scams than any other type of scam reported to the FTC.
Romance scammers post their fake profiles on popular dating websites and apps. They also target people through direct messaging on social media sites. Their goal is to steal your heart and then steal your money. Victims can lose hundreds of thousands of dollars. In some cases, their life savings.
A cautionary tale
Joyce, a divorcee who lives in the greater Chicago area, got conned into giving $200,000 to a man she met online. He tricked her into sending him all her savings and half of her retirement money, plus the proceeds from two loans she took out for him.
“It’s been devastating. I can’t pay my bills and I’m always worried about money,” Joyce (who asked us not to use her last name) told NBC News BETTER. “I wanted to retire this year, but I can’t because I don’t have any savings. And now I have to find a second job to pay off those loans.”
As is typical with these scams, this online romance was all via text or email. And yet, the relationship felt real to Joyce.
“They talk to you so lovingly that you can’t believe they’d scam you,” she told me. “It’s like you are walking around with blinders on.”
While older folks tend to lose more money when they fall for a romance scam, anyone can get fooled by the fake profiles and stolen photos of attractive men and women.
“This is the ultimate con and these people are good at what they do,” said Amy Nofziger, director of fraud victim support at the AARP Fraud Watch Network. “You’ve never met them, but you’ve seen a picture, you’ve had long conversations by text or on the phone. They say you’re the love of their life and so you trust them.”
Anatomy of a scam
Joyce started her search for a husband in March of 2019 on a popular website for singles over 50. She quickly found herself in an online relationship with Joel, who said he was an architect, also divorced, who lived in a nearby community in Illinois.
In an email to Joyce (which she shared with NBC News BETTER), Joel described himself as an “intelligent, smart, honest” man who had “a lot of love in my heart to give to my beloved woman.”
It wasn’t long before they were off the dating website and texting each other many times a day. When Joyce asked for pictures and a copy of his driver license, Joel sent them. (The Illinois Secretary of State’s office told us that the license is fraudulent.)
In just a couple of months, Joel started calling Joyce his “wife to be” and she believed they were going to get married. “You are my fantasy, my love, and my dream,” he wrote in one of his many romantic text messages. He even sent her flowers for Easter.
Joyce wanted to FaceTime with him, but there was always a reason why he couldn’t. She pressed him to meet, but again, more excuses for why that couldn’t happen.
Eventually, Joel said he was going to Lisbon on business. When he returned, he said, they could start their life together.
The first request for money came shortly after that, more than three months into the con. Joel said it was a loan to help with a business opportunity in Lisbon that would benefit both of them when there were married. He made it clear this was a loan and she’d be paid interest. So Joyce sent the money, as instructed, via Bitcoin.
This was just the first of many money requests. When Joyce got suspicious and shared her concerns, Joel insisted he was a man of his word and not out to steal her money. “I love you genuinely and I plan on spending my eternity with you,” he texted.
So how could this happen? How could she send so much money to someone she’s never met or even spoken to?
“I can’t explain it,” Joyce told me. “You’re just kind of brainwashed.”
That’s what makes romance scams scary — the criminals know what to do and what to say to weave a web of deception.
“These scammers are willing to invest a lot of time getting to know their target. Once they have that rapport, it’s easier to move in and con them,” said Stephanie Carruthers, the Chief People Hacker at IBM X-Force Red, who goes by the pseudonym Snow.
NBC News BETTER asked the X-Force Red team if they could find out anything about Joel using the photos he sent Joyce and the email and phone numbers he used. They couldn’t find anything. Carruthers said his fake persona was probably so new that it hadn’t shown up on any romance scam alert websites yet.
A new type of relationship scam: The sugar daddy con
Some people go online looking for a different type of relationship. Young women and men (known as “sugar babies”) visit websites that connect them with someone older (a “sugar daddy” or “sugar momma”) who agrees to pay them in gifts or cash in exchange for companionship. This relationship may or may not include sex.
“Sugaring sites have millions of users — and a lot of fraudsters. They pretend to be a sugar daddy or sugar momma and promise to pay off their victim’s debts, but it’s just a ruse to get their credit card or banking information,” Fraud.org cautions.
“The sites where people go to look for sugar daddies or sugar babies are crawling with scammers,” said Fraud.org’s John Breyault. “Complaints are skyrocketing. That’s why we advise against going online to look for a sugar daddy or sugar momma.”
How to avoid getting burned
We wanted to know what the industry is doing to protect its customers, so we contacted Match Group, which owns 10 popular dating sites, including Tinder, Match and OkCupid.
The company declined to talk to us, but provided a link to its Safety Center where users are instructed not to send money to someone they meet on one of its platforms and to report any individual who asks them to do that. The Safety Center also describes having “a dedicated team and sophisticated technology” that patrols for fraud on Match Group’s platforms.
Basically, you’re on your own, fraud experts tell NBC News BETTER. You need to know the warning signs of romance scams and how to use online tools, such as Google search by image to spot bogus photos or BeenVerified (a paid service) to verify an identity. Romance Scams.org has detailed instructions on how to do this.
So take it slow. If something seems questionable or a little bit off, trust your instincts — don’t let your heart overrule your brain. And no matter how much someone professes their love for you, never send money or gifts to a sweetheart you haven’t met in person.
“Love is a very powerful emotion and scammers who latch on to that can ruin your life, so be careful,” Breyault cautioned.