Romance scams are in the news in a big way. Recently, the Department of Justice (DOJ) charged a New Jersey man for his role in an online romance scam that defrauded more than 30 victims out of millions of dollars. In addition, the DOJ charged a gang of 80 criminals with stealing millions of dollars through online romance and business email compromise scams. Sadly, one of this gang’s victims is facing bankruptcy after sending over $200,000 to a scammer posing as a U.S. Army captain. However, it’s not just financial loss that victims are forced to face. It’s equally important to recognize the embarrassment, shame, and heartbreak they experience. At Social-Engineer.org (SEORG), we believe that no one should be victimized by this cruel scam. Therefore, the focus of this month’s Newsletter is to raise awareness about romance scams and how criminals are stealing hearts and money.
Of course, the inherent risk with any exclusively online relationship is, how do you really know who you’re connecting with? Certainly, this danger is well-known and nothing new, which leads us to ask, “How did online relationships and dating become popular?” Let’s take a brief look.
Online Relationships and Dating
Relationships, including romance and dating, were forever changed in 1991. What triggered this change? The World Wide Web became publicly available on the Internet for the first time. Soon thereafter, dating websites registered their official domains. To begin with, people viewed online dating suspiciously. It was whispered, “It’s only for the desperate.” However, movies such as “You’ve Got Mail,” (1998) with its attractive and successful characters portrayed by Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks help to popularize and normalize online relationships and dating.
Now, online dating is the most popular way for American couples to meet and form relationships according to a new study published by Stanford sociologist Michael Rosenfield. In fact, millions use online dating websites and apps to search for love and connection. You’ve surely heard of, or seen the variety of platforms. There are dating apps and sites for professional singles, over fifties, recently widowed, and more. Of course, criminals noticed this trend in behavior, too. Without delay, they joined the online dating scene looking to steal hearts…and money. Notably, scammers now comprise at least 10% of new accounts on free dating sites according to a study by Marketdata Enterprise, Inc.
As a result, romance scams rank #1 in total consumer fraud losses affecting Americans. Significantly, in 2018, Sentinel received 21,000 reports involving romance scams, with a total loss of $143,000,000. Equally important is who scammers target. The FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center reports that scammers target middle age women, the divorced/widowed, and the elderly. In the light of these facts, we need to know more about how scammers lure their victims. To that end, let’s look at what the experts say.
How Romance Scammers Lure Their Victims
Experts at the FBI say romance scammers commonly pose as U.S. citizens living abroad—a realistic scenario to make their victim trust and love them. For example, scammers pose as doctors working with international aid organizations, U.S. military personnel on deployment, workers on oil rigs, or U.S. business owners living overseas. Scammers either use a fictional name, or they’ll steal identities and photos of real people to build trust.
Now, the scammer begins searching dating sites and apps for potential victims. As has been noted, they seek out specific types of victims. When a scammer finds someone to connect with, they swiftly move things along. Most victims report an accelerated and intense relationship in which they quickly feel wanted, needed, and loved. Next, the scammer will suggest they leave the dating site to communicate privately through text messages or email. By this time, the victim is completely under the influence of the scammer and trusts them. The con artist has stolen the victim’s heart. Now, the scammer can steal what they really want—money.
To persuade the victim to part with their money, the scammer will typically invent an emergency. For example, the FTC has received reports of scammers requesting money for emergency surgery, and medical or travel expenses. Frequently, the scammer will ask for money in the form of a gift card. As the scam progresses, they invent more emergencies which require more financial support. Because the victim believes they are in a committed, loving relationship, they will go to extraordinary lengths to fulfill the requests. For instance, some victims give scammers their entire life’s savings or attempt to remortgage their homes. Even after the victim realizes it’s a scam, some report being more devastated by the loss of the relationship than by the loss of their assets.
The Psychology Behind Stealing Hearts and Money
Are there certain personality types that are more likely to fall victim to romance scams? A study conducted by Professor Monica Whitty suggests this might be true. Notably, after examining several psychological traits, she concludes that impulsive and trusting people with addictive personalities are more likely to become victims of a romance scam. How does the scammer use these traits to their advantage? Let’s break it down.
An impulsive person quickly puts thought into action. In other words, they do not take the time to think critically and weigh possible outcomes. The romance scammer takes advantage of this lack of impulse control by creating a sense of urgency and exploiting the victim’s “in the moment” mentality. This urgency is first seen in the intensity and quickness of the relationship, sadly often misunderstood by the victim as “love at first sight.” Then, as the relationship progresses, the scammer capitalizes on this sense of urgency. For example, emergencies are invented that require immediate action. Indeed, the scammer won’t hesitate to apply pressure to the victim as needed. Their intention? To have the victim disregard any logic or impulse control that would work against the scammer’s story.
Most romance scam victims consider themselves trusting people. Victims have even confessed, “I wanted to believe him.” A trusting person is less likely to use search tools to verify an email address, image, or phone number. For this reason, scammers feel confident to create fake online personas, or use stolen identities and photos of real people for their profiles.
Professor Whitty suggests that people get caught up in romance scams because they become addicted to the scam itself. Once the scam–i.e., the relationship–has started, victims find it difficult or impossible to walk away. Indeed, the scammer uses the victim’s addictive personality trait to their advantage by beginning with small requests for money and eventually escalating to larger requests. If, and when the victim pays on the smaller request, they’re hooked. The addictive personality feels committed to continue. Significantly, Professor Whitty suggests that romance scam victims are like gamblers; they get caught up in the process, perceiving it as a “near win” situation.
To be sure, no one is immune to being victimized in a romance scam. However, if you have personality traits that are impulsive, trusting, and addictive, you’re at an increased risk for being victimized. Let this knowledge and self-awareness empower you!
Protect Yourself from Romance Scams
Take these practical steps to protect yourself:
- Do a reverse image search. The FBI and the FTC recommend doing a reverse image search. By doing so you’ll discover if a profile picture is being used elsewhere on the Internet, and on which websites. Additionally, sometimes a search yields information that links the image with other victims or scams. The FBI provides these instructions for reverse searching images.
- Reverse search email addresses and phone numbers. Most dating sites do not conduct criminal background searches on new accounts. So, be your own advocate. Use people verification websites to affirm whom you are connecting with. A favorite go-to website used by one our team members at Social-Engineer.com (SECOM) is AdvancedBackgroundChecks.
- Select a trusted family member or friend to intervene. Think of this person as your champion and supporter. Review together the FBI’s list of techniques used by romance scammers and decide in advance to end the relationship when those red flags occur. Write this agreement down and sign it.
The FBI also advises the following:
- Firstly, never send money, especially by wire transfer, to someone you have only met online and not in-person.
- Additionally, do not provide credit card numbers or bank account information without verifying the recipient’s identity.
- Most importantly, at no time should you share your Social Security Number or other personally identifiable information (information that can be used to access your accounts) with someone who does not need to know this information. And remember, even if someone says they “need” your information, don’t give it to them unless you have verified their identity and intention.
What Can You Do if You Are a Victim?
Most romance scam victims report feeling embarrassment and shame. Because they blame themselves, many feel too humiliated to speak out. As a result, victims suffer alone in silence. So, if you have been victimized by this cruel scam, please reach out to your family, friends, or a support group for help. By all means, be courageous! Report the crime to your local law enforcement. In fact, doing so may help you in the recovery process. Additionally, reporting may also help law officials catch these heartless criminals and prevent them from victimizing another unsuspecting person. Both the FBI and the FTC recommend taking these following actions if you have been victimized:
- Firstly, report the fraud to the Internet Crime Complaint Center at www.ic3.gov. Local FBI field offices can be found online at www.fbi.gov/contact-us/field.
- Additionally, report your experience to the Federal Trade Commission ftc.gov/complaint.
- Moreover, if you discover fraudulent or suspicious activity, contact your financial institutions immediately and direct them to stop or reverse the transactions.
- Furthermore, don’t forget to report your experience to the website or app where contact was first initiated by the scammer.
Security Through Education
Security depends upon education. Therefore, we must be aware of how scammers influence, trick, and control us. With that purpose in mind, our website, Social-Engineer.Org was founded. We take our mission statement, “Security Through Education,” seriously. To this end, our website provides free, searchable information designed to help you stay secure in both your personal and professional life. We invite you to read through our Framework section > Influencing Others. It specifically discusses the eight aspects of influence based on Dr. Robert Cialdini’s work, as well as our own experience in the field.
Bonus: Dig deeper with these reports and studies about romance scams and Dr. Cialdini’s book on Persuasion:
- “I Made a Choice”: Exploring the Persuasion Tactics Used by Online Romance Scammers in Light of Cialdini’s Compliance Principles —Aaron K. Archer, Regis University
- Do You Love Me? Psychological Characteristics of Romance Scam Victims—Monica K. Whitty, The University of Warwick
- Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Revised Edtion —Robert B. Cialdini
Written By: Social-Engineer
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