ROCKFORD — Valentine’s Day is approaching, and many hope to spend it with someone special.
With the rise of social media and online dating over the years, there are more ways than ever to find love. And during the pandemic, meeting people in personal has become far more challenging. However, these platforms also create opportunities for scammers to reach potential victims.
In the last year, local victims to Romance Scams reported over $3,500 in losses and just across the State of Illinois in 2020 there were over $203,000 in losses.
According to the Better Business Bureau, over the last two years, the financial impact of this scam has increased in recent years, making them the costliest type of fraud for consumers.
“Not only can romance scams be financially devastating, but they are emotionally trying for the individuals who fall for them,” local Better Business Bureau Director Dennis Horton said. “Scammers generally reach their victims via social media or dating apps, where they begin to build an imaginary relationship with them.”
Horton said impostors share stories about themselves, often claiming they work overseas and need plane tickets home, have sick relatives or are experiencing financial troubles. This information, often accompanied by excuses for never meeting in person, is meant to convince their targets to send them money Some begin to ask for money after a few days or weeks, while others will keep the charade up for several months, allowing their target to become emotionally invested in the relationship.
A local complaint to the BBB tells the story of a woman who was taken by romance scammer.
“My mother n law was scammed by a man. He said he had two kids, an older sick mom and wife killed in car accident,” the complainant said. “He had to go to Africa for work and was stuck. Needed money for plane ticket, kids needed money for food, birthdays, clothes. This guy had my mother-in-law feeling so guilty and bad for him and (his) kids. I’ve seen texts where they ask for money for food. Amazon cards was the choice. This man claimed he would marry my mother-in-law when he got back to states. He had lost his wallet, his boss didn’t pay him, he’s hungry, all the extremes. I stepped in the picture and asked for him to call me. He would act like he’s mad for her. My mother-in-law is 62. This man claimed to be in 30s. Young and handsome pictures. Just didn’t fit. This young model looking guy interested and acting to be in love with a 62-year-old disabled women.”
Data from Better Business Bureau, the Financial Industry Regulation Authority (FINRA) and the Stanford Center for Longevity show that women ages 55 to 64 are most likely to be targeted for a romance scam. In addition to common risk factors, COVID-19 and the CARES Act motivated fraudsters to steal federal funds through romance scams. After the recent distribution of stimulus checks, and hopes of more to come, taxpayers should be especially diligent when interacting with people online.
“Never send money to strangers,” Horton said. “Never give money to someone you haven’t met in person. Be especially wary if they ask you to send funds through wire transfer, money orders or pre-paid cards, as these forms of payment are untraceable and cannot be returned. Cut off contact immediately with anyone who requests money online.”
The BBB also recommends the use of reverse image searches. Scammers can create very convincing profiles by using photos stolen from other users. If someone suspects an account is fake, a reverse image search can reveal if pictures are used on other profiles.
Sad stories, Horton says, are also red flags. Victims of romance scams are often pulled in by stories that tug on the heartstrings, making them want to help the scammer or their family. Resting the urge to send money, he said, no matter how urgent the situation may seem, is the best course of action.
Another sign of a romance scam is someone who is eager to move the conversation off of the website or establish a serious relationship in a short amount of time without meeting first. The BBB recommends taking time to get to know potential matches and ensure they are who they say they are.
Online dating services should also be investigated before signing up. Horton said users should check out their business reviews and ratings first.