Valentine’s Day might put you in the mood to look for love online. Unfortunately, criminals are also on the hunt, but for victims, not romance.
“Meeting people online has opened the door to romance fraud,” says Kim Casci-Palangio, program director of the peer support program at the nonprofit Cybercrime Support Network in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “You feel you can trust them,” she says, adding that cybercriminals often cultivate relationships for months before asking for money.
Reports to the Federal Trade Commission show consumers lost $1.3 billion in 2022 to romance scams. While romance scams can happen to anybody, here are some strategies experts suggest to reduce your risk of falling for one:
BEWARE OF ONLINE RELATIONSHIPS THAT MOVE FAST
People are often eager to move relationships forward quickly, especially around official holidays, says Eva Valesquez, president and CEO of the Identity Theft Resource Center, a nonprofit organization that provides advice and assistance related to identity theft. She suggests going slowly instead.
Scam artists, Valesquez explains, tend to shower their targets with affection, proclaiming their love early. Then, the victim feels compelled to send money when the scam artist says they need it. “They make up some excuse like an accident,” she explains. If their target doesn’t send it to them, they move on to the next victim.
WATCH FOR COMMON RED FLAGS
Another sign of romance fraud is if the person you are interacting with asks you to communicate off of the dating app, such as by using WhatsApp or email, says Ayleen Charlotte, whose story of being tricked by a romance scam was featured in the Netflix show “The Tinder Swindler.” Charlotte now works with BioCatch, a fraud prevention firm, as a scam advisor and banking customer advocate.
“They want you in a more personal environment to get to you,” Charlotte says, where they can interact with you on their own terms without any limits imposed by dating apps.
Casci-Palangio says another sign that something is amiss is if the person you are communicating with declines to have video calls with you or meet in person. They might cite reasons such as living overseas, serving in the military or working on an offshore oil rig.
“They may not be who they say they are,” Casci-Palangio says. They might also be using canned scripts that they send to multiple people; using terms like “honey” instead of your name is a sign you could be communicating with a scammer.
DO YOUR OWN RESEARCH
If you start to wonder about the person you are communicating with online, it’s time to go into investigative mode. Casci-Palangio suggests starting with a reverse image search of their profile photos. You can upload any photo to images.google.com to generate results. You might discover the images actually belong to someone else or are used across multiple sites with different names and identities.
“But they could also be using a newly created image. Having no online footprint is also a red flag,” she adds.
Melanie McGovern, national spokesperson for the Better Business Bureau, a nonprofit that promotes marketplace trust, suggests taking notes on your interactions so you can notice any inconsistencies. If your love interest mentions a high school they attended, then look it up and confirm whatever other facts you can.
“Make sure you’re asking all kinds of specific questions,” McGovern says, especially if they share a sad story about a sick relative or other compelling tale. Then, go back and ask the same questions a week later. “If they can’t remember details, you should be skeptical,” she says.
AVOID EXCHANGING MONEY
One common scenario involves the scam artist encouraging you to send money for an investment or asking you to accept a large deposit, which you then forward to another account. But then, the first check doesn’t clear and your own money vanishes, warns Seth Ruden, BioCatch’s director of global advisory.
“Don’t take funds from people you’ve never met, and don’t offer to circulate funds for others,” Ruden says. “If you authorize a money transfer, you are probably responsible for it,” he adds, which means you might never see your money again.