Valentines Day is over, but law enforcement officials and consumer advocates say romance scams are still prevalent. In fact, many officials trace a large increase in these schemes to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The method of choice among these predators is to use one or more dating apps to search for victims. They create fake profiles and establish an online relationship before moving in for a payoff.
In many cases, the scammer will tell their victim that they have had a severe financial setback. Often, their victim volunteers to send money.
Huge losses in 2021
According to Statista, there were an estimated 44.2 million users of online dating services in the United States in 2020 – 26.6 million of which were on smartphone dating apps. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reports that the 2021 losses linked to romance scams accounted for more than half a billion dollars, and the prevalence of romance scammers increased nearly 80% compared to 2020.
Patricia, of Harrison, Ark., tells us she had a close call with a romance scammer who asked her to cash a check and send the proceeds back in the form of an Apple gift card – a sure sign of a scam.
“But I've read too many articles on this subject so I didn't send them a dime nor gift cards,” Patricia wrote in a review of US Search, which she credits with helping her avoid the trap.
Devin, of Upper Darby, Pa., reported a similar experience on a dating site called Plenty Of Fish (POF). She noticed that a lot of the scammers pretended to be lonely U.S. soldiers.
“Victims may encounter these romance scammers on a legitimate dating website or social media platform, but they are not U.S. soldiers,” Devin wrote in a ConsumerAffairs review. “To perpetrate this scam, the scammers take on the online persona of a current or former U.S. Soldier, and then, using photographs of a Soldier from the internet, build a false identity to begin prowling the web for victims.”
Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody has warned residents of her state to be careful when using online dating apps. She says there are several ways people can protect themselves. One way is to be mindful of common tactics that romance scammers use.
For example, be wary of anyone trying to establish a bond very quickly, even proposing marriage not long into a relationship. Scammers will also try to move the conversation to a direct-messaging app while revealing very little about themselves.
The biggest red flag, of course, is an appeal for money. Scammers may wait several weeks into the relationship before springing this on their victim. By then, Moody says the victim may be especially vulnerable.
“It is pitiful that scammers prey on people searching for companionship – exploiting their emotions all in an effort to steal their money,” Moody said. “Be wary anytime you are interacting with someone online, to make sure that the person you are talking to is actually who they say they are and not a scammer."