Romance scams cost consumers $1.14 billion last year. It’s a ‘more insidious’ fraud, expert says

Personal finance

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Cybercriminals are targeting wealth accounts by tapping into a victim’s emotions.

So-called romance scams involve building a relationship and trust with the victim so that the target willingly provides access to their accounts or transfers money to the criminal, explained Tracy Kitten, the director of fraud and security at Javelin Strategy & Research, a financial research services firm.

Consumers lost $1.14 billion to romance scams in 2023, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Median losses per person amounted to $2,000, the highest reported losses for any form of imposter scam, the FTC found.

“Romance scams tend to be some of the more insidious because they prey on emotions,” Kitten said. “These things happen in real life, these aren’t just shows that we see on Netflix.” 

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“What people need to realize is that people behind these types of scams could teach a master class in human behavior,” said Theresa Payton, a former White House chief information officer who is now the CEO of cybersecurity firm Fortalice Solutions.

“They know the different emotional trigger points that we all have, and that’s when they strike,” Payton added.

‘They trust the person who’s manipulating them’

Romance scammers trick their victims into thinking they’re someone they’re not. Over time, the criminal will develop a relationship with the victim, Kitten explained.

Once trust is established, the victim may be more easily convinced to send money, provide access to their bank accounts, and, in some cases, even launder funds for them, she said.

About 22% of surveyed financial advisors with clients affected by fraud have had clients who fell victim to a romance scam, according to Javelin. The survey fielded 1,500 financial advisors in July 2023.

Oftentimes, cybercriminals are reaching out and developing relationships over social media platforms, Kitten said.

It’s a really easy way for them to fool their victims because there’s no face-to-face contact,” she said.

About 40% of people who said they lost money to a romance scam in 2022 said the contact started on social media, the FTC found.

Almost three-quarters, or 73%, of consumers who had been victimized by a romance scam were men, according to Javelin data. For that report, Javelin polled 5,000 U.S. households in November 2022.

“At this point, we’re all exposed,” Fortalice Solutions’ Payton said. “Even if you don’t have a big social media footprint, your data points are out there.”  

Spotting ‘the biggest red flag’ for romance scams

There are ways to detect if a romance scammer has targeted you. “The biggest red flag,” said Payton, is requests for money. 

Here are five more warning signs:

  1. Unsolicited text messages: Scammers can use bots that can reach out to hundreds of people at a time through cell phone numbers, email addresses and social media accounts. Some messages are as simple as “hi.” “All it takes is just for one person to take the bait,” she said.
  2. Too good to be true: If the person is suddenly very interested in the same things as you, and wants to carry the conversation in a different direct messaging platform, that can be another red flag.
  3. Refusal to meet in person: The scammer will make up excuses for not wanting to meet in real life. Yet sometimes the alternative can occur: The scammer might ask for money for travel expenses to come out and meet you, Payton said. 
  4. Isolation attempts: If the scammer discourages you from talking to family or friends of the new romantic interest. 
  5. Pressure tactics: If the new contact is badgering you to keep up the relationship, ask for money or financial information. 

In these long-term scams, it’s often hard for the victim to see that they’ve been scammed because “they trust the person who’s manipulating them,” Kitten said. 

Financial advisors can help their clients by educating them on what cybercrime could look like. Doing so can “go a long way” to help victims understand when they’ve been scammed, said Kitten.

Here are five things you can do to vet the new contact, according to Payton:

  1. Reverse search the image: Use reverse-search tools for images online to verify the images the potential scammer is using.
  2. Look at your privacy settings: Be mindful of the information that you share on social media.
  3. If you meet someone, take your time: Make sure to ask questions about their background. Keep track of what they say and look for inconsistencies.
  4. Avoid financial transactions: Do not send financial information or funds to the person at first ask. Talk to family, friends, trusted advisors and bankers about the situation.
  5. Meet at a public spot: Ask to meet them in person in a public spot or close to a police station. If they act “sketchy,” said Payton, “you have your answer.”

Report suspicious profiles or messages to the online platform you’re using and then report the incident to the FTC at ReportFraud.ftc.gov. If the situation has escalated, report the incident to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Victims can seek free support and counseling through The Cybercrime Support Network, which offers a free 10-week virtual romance scam recovery group, led by licensed counselors, Payton said.

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