FBI warns consumers to look out for romance scams

Photo (c) serpeblu - Getty Images

Online dating sites don’t always vet users, so consumers should verify who they’re talking to

Confidence/romance fraud -- also known as “catfishing” -- continues to rise, with more than 18,000 people claiming they were hit by the love bug to the tune of $362 million in losses. That’s up more than 70 percent over the previous year. 

Comparatively, those 18,000 victims make confidence/romance the seventh most-reported issue and a bigger problem than identity theft and credit card fraud.

How the game is played 

As you might imagine, the typical platform for the fraud is online dating sites. Decoys usually show up as someone posing as a U.S. citizen living or vacationing abroad, U.S. business owners seeking assistance with money-making investments, or U.S. military personnel deployed overseas. 

“After establishing their victims’ trust, scammers try to convince them to send money for airfare to visit, or claim they are in trouble and need money,” the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) explained. “Victims often send money because they believe they are in a romantic relationship.”

“For example, an actor claims to be a U.S. citizen living abroad. After a few months of building a relationship with the victim, the actor asks the victim to send gifts or electronics to a foreign address. After a few more months, the actor expresses a desire to return to the U.S. to meet the victim. The actor claims not to have the money to pay for travel and asks the victim to wire funds. In some cases, the actor claims the wired funds did not arrive and asks the victim to resend the money.”

To keep things fresh, the perpetrators are leveraging some new twists. One of the new favorites is enlisting the victim to become a “money mule” -- someone who illegally assists in transferring money for someone else. Actors typically play this angle slowly, grooming the victim to trust the actor, then, when the confidence level is where the actor wants it, they ask the victim to open up a new bank account under the pretense of sending or receiving funds. 

Staying vigilant

Just like legitimate dating sites, the lure is typically a photo, just not the cyber crook’s photo. The photos are usually copied from another source like social media or a royalty-free image site.

To verify whether the photo is actually that person, the FBI suggests performing a reverse image check. To do that, consumers can simply do the following: 

  • Right click on the image and select “Search for image.”

  • Right click again and select “Save image as” to save the photo to your device.

  • Using a search engine, choose the small camera icon to upload the saved image into the search engine.

If you think that dating site administrators should do their due diligence when someone registers their profile, you’re probably right. However, most don’t, putting the onus on the users. Of all the red flags to be on the lookout for, the FBI says the most telling is an immediate request to talk or chat via email or a messaging platform outside the dating site. 

Other warning signals the FBI says to be on the lookout for include: 

  • If the person says finding you was “destiny” or “fate,” especially early on.

  • If the person says they’re American but just happens to be living or working overseas, or traveling abroad. 

  • If the person asks you to send money, gift cards, or any other type of “financial assistance” without ever meeting them.

  • If the person wants your help in opening a new bank account or depositing/transferring funds or shipping merchandise.

  • If the person claims they’re in some sort of personal crisis and asks for some financial help.

  • If the person tells inconsistent, hard-to-believe, or sad stories, like losing a spouse to cancer.

Be careful with your personal information

The FBI’s bottom-line advice is pretty much the same for this fraud as it would be for any other:  don’t send money or give out credit card numbers, bank account information, or Social Security numbers to anyone you meet online until you’ve completely verified the recipient’s identity. Authenticating someone’s identity will take work, but you know what they say about an ounce of prevention.

Sadly, love can turn good people into suckers. If you feel you’ve been duped, the FBI recommends taking these steps:

  • Contact the FBI (IC3), your local FBI field office, or both. 

  • Call your bank as soon as you discover any fraudulent or suspicious activity and ask them to stop or reverse the transactions, as well as contact the corresponding financial institution where the fraudulent or suspicious transfer was sent.

  • Report the activity to the website where the contact with the other person was first initiated.

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