In the latest romance scam to make news, a man pretending to be a Russian astronaut defrauded a woman in Japan out of $30,000 -- about 4.4 million yen.
What started out as a virtual meeting on Instagram quickly turned into a marriage proposal and subsequent scam. The 65-year-old woman in Japan told authorities that she began talking with this man in June when he told her he worked for the International Space Station.
They took the next step in their relationship when the scammer proposed marriage to the woman – and went on to repeatedly profess his love for her. He made plans to start their life together in Japan, but would need her to send him money in order for him to return to Earth.
That's right, he said he was in space! The requested money included fees to both fly the rocket back to Earth and what he dubbed “landing fees” that he’d need to pay upon arrival in Japan.
Between August and September, the victim sent him installments of money that totaled $30,000 – all with the intention of bringing the “astronaut” back to Earth. However, the more money the scammer asked for, the more alarm bells rang for the victim. She has since contacted local authorities to report the incident.
How to protect yourself from romance scams
Anyone can be on the receiving end of a romance scam like this one, though maybe not as other-worldly.
“Romance scams are usually initiated online and often prey on vulnerable people,” writes the U.S. Secret Service. “Scammers create fake online profiles and attempt to build phony emotional attachments until a potential victim is comfortable sending them money.
“Victims can be both men and women. Many times, the criminal targets older people and those who may be struggling in a relationship and/or are emotionally vulnerable. Though most criminals aim for vulnerable targets, affluent and well-educated individuals have also fallen victim to these types of scams.”
There are certain things to look for or be aware of if you fear you may be on the receiving end of a romance scam. The Los Angeles County Department of Consumer and Business Affairs offers five main tips for consumers to avoid romance scams:
Like many other scams, typos, grammatical errors, or misspelled words in posts or messages can signal a lack of legitimacy.
Receiving extreme messages of love and adoration after only a few days of talking – without meeting in person – can be a red flag that things aren’t what they seem.
Research all the information they give you – pictures, names, and social media profiles. It’s also important to search any images on their social media accounts through Google to ensure they aren’t being used elsewhere.
Schedule an in-person meeting in a public place. Scammers aren’t likely to be willing to meet with you – let alone in public.
Anyone who asks for money over the internet is more than likely a scammer. Never wire money, send money from your bank account, or buy gift cards, for anyone that isn’t a trusted family member or friend.
If you think you’re involved in a romance scam, report it to the Federal Trade Commission and the website or app where you met the scammer.