February has a reputation as the month of love. But the need for companionship and belonging can make anyone susceptible to a romance scam — especially if you're looking for love online. Here's how to identify and avoid this costly and heart-wrenching crime.
How Romance Scams Work
First, let's look at the science of love. When you fall in love, the dopamine in your brain activates. This forms a strong attachment to the other person. Romance scams exploit this bit of human biology. Criminals find victims on dating sites, apps, Facebook, and other social media.
Romance scams are a crime orchestrated by ruthless, cold individuals looking solely for monetary gain, not companionship. One of the most popular romance scams usually includes the scammer claiming to live overseas (either for business or military service), befriending someone online, and pretending to be a potential love interest.
They might seem perfect (almost too good to be true). They will appear caring, compassionate, empathetic, and attractive (if they have an online dating photo). After a short amount of time, including long message exchanges and possible phone calls, they will ask for money. The money will be necessary to pay for an emergency, hospital bill, or travel expenses so they can visit the person they are scamming. If any money is sent, it will be lost forever.
It gets worse.
The criminals will often promise to return the money. But they cannot wire money from their location. All they require is the victim's online banking username and password. Once they have that information, they clean out the account and disappear.
Flirting with Disaster
Romance scams have quickly become the costliest online crime. In 2021, American losses to romance scams added up to $547 million, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
Experts warn that it can be easy to fall for a romance scam. Thankfully, they're also easy to spot. It's likely a romance scam when someone:
- Seems too good to be true.
- Professes love quickly.
- Claims to be overseas and cannot come to visit.
- Asks for money for an emergency or other needs.
- Promises to pay the victim back (all they need is an online banking login).
- Requests money be wired or loaded to a card, such as MoneyPak, Amazon, Google, iTunes, or Steam.
- Opens a new bank account in both names to make deposits easier.
- Continually breaks promises to visit in person.
Crush the Crush
Want to thwart the criminals? Request an in-person meeting before sending money or sharing information. Romance scam perpetrators will always have an emergency or other conflict that keeps them from meeting. Other ways to protect yourself include:
- Reverse search the person's photo: If they're a criminal, they are likely using a fake image and name. Often, those photos are of overseas actors or actresses.
- Ask questions: Cross-examine the person to find holes in their story.
- Never send sensitive information: That includes your Social Security Number, phone number, account number, credit card numbers, or online banking login credentials (not even to someone claiming to be a credit union representative).
- Never transfer money: Not even if someone calls claiming to be from the credit union. Instead, hang up and call us back to report the crime.
- Don't send compromising photos of yourself: Criminals will use these to blackmail you out of money.
- Talk to someone you trust: If your friends and family think it's a scam, it probably is.
- Don't follow orders: Criminals might ask victims to cash a check and then wire the money. The check will bounce, and you'll be out a stack of cash.
Looking for Love Online? Here's What NOT to Do!
- Don't send compromising photos of yourself.
- Don't share too much personal information until you've met in person (face to face).
- Don't send any money. Ever!
- Don't keep it a secret. Tell your friends and family.
- Don't buy plane tickets.
- Don't send gift cards.
- Don't give out your personal phone number.
- Don't accept money for any reason.
Bottom Line: Play it EXTRA Safe!
Approach any online relationship with caution. Additionally, move slowly. Do a background check on the person of interest and learn all you can about them from reputable sources. And never, ever, ever, ever send someone money, gift cards, or wire funds — even if they've sent you a check to cover it. There is a very real chance you'll be scammed out of your money.
One Nevada Loves You
If you or someone you know falls victim to a romance scam, contact us to stop all payments, block credit, and debit cards, and change online banking login credentials. Then report the crime to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3).