Swipe Left on Romance Scams This Valentine’s Day

By: Sarah Ikalowych

It’s February (already?!), the season of cupids, roses, chocolate, and for some, heartbreak. While no one wants to be on the wrong end of a breakup, it could always be worse: you could be broken up with, and broke, if you have been the victim of a romance scam.

What is a Romance Scam?

Let’s face it: dating has changed a great deal in the past 10 or so years with the wide acceptance of internet meeting and dating platforms such as Tinder, Bumble, Our Time, and many others. Not to mention, the global pandemic and resulting quarantine orders boosted these apps’ presence and adoption event more as people looked for additional ways to connect with others while stuck at home.

However, not being able to meet the individual at the other end of the line in person does leave a fairly large grey area and requires a significant amount of trust in someone you have never met. Bad actors are everywhere (yes, even on the internet- shocking!), and those bad actors have found ways to take advantage of both the physical and emotional void that dating app users are experiencing when signing up. As explained frankly by the FBI, “romance scams occur when a criminal adopts a fake online identity to gain a victim’s affection and trust. The scammer then uses the illusion of a romantic or close relationship to manipulate and/or steal from the victim.” Ouch.

Individuals running these scams will often use techniques such as love bombing, or showering their victim with attention and affection to make them fall in love quickly, and use promises of trips, marriage, and a future together to gain their target’s trust. Once the “relationship” is secure, then come the requests for funds. These can be anything from needing spot money here or there for groceries or an oil change all the way up to a catastrophic accident that requires a multi-thousand-dollar surgery. Romance scammers are crafty criminals, and they use the knowledge they have gained from getting to acquainted with their victim to make up reasons to need cash that are likely to be believed.

What are the Numbers?

Just how popular are dating apps, though, and how many people are at risk of falling victim to a scam like this? According to research from Statistica, 2020 recorded 44.2 million users of online dating apps here in the US, and their Digital Market Outlook estimates that by 2025, the number will increase to 53.3 million. These numbers reflect a huge market for scammers and con artists to pick their prey from and take advantage of.

But surely not everyone will fall for an attempted scam, so how much money are these individuals really getting away with? The Federal Trade Commission reported last February that consumers have lost a total of $1.3 billion to romance scams in the past five years, with $547 million of that total taking place in 2021 alone. This represents a whopping 80% increase compared to 2020. So, the short answer is, a lot.

We’ve even seen an increase in conversations about such scams in the media and pop culture. The 2022 Netflix Documentary “The Tinder Swindler” tells the real story of a conman who posed as the heir to an Israeli diamond empire and stole over $10 million from various women he met on Tinder through various schemes. The film was met with outstanding reviews and received five primetime Emmy nominations. Yet somehow, its glaring presence as a warning story is still not doing much to deter these scams.

What are the Red Flags?

While not all of these scams look alike, there are some telltale “red flags” that dating app users should be aware of when looking for love online. These include actions like:

  • Avoiding convening in person: this usually means they are not where, or who, they say they are and want to keep that hidden
  • Having a lack of any other social media presence: this makes it much more difficult to verify that someone is who they say they are
  • Immediately wanting to take the conversation off the app used to meet: this is so that the app cannot track conversations or information swapped, or if the individual believes someone is on to them and their account may be canceled soon
  • Trying to isolate the victim from family and friends: the fewer people around to recognize the danger the victim is in, the more likely they are to fall for the con

And, of course, the ultimate red flag: asking for money for any reason whatsoever.

Internet con artists have come a long way from popping into our email inboxes, posing as a foreign prince who needs $15,000, but will reward you with $15 million once it is received. These criminals are sly, advanced, and manipulative, paying attention to their victims and playing with fragile emotions. Dating apps can be an amazing place to meet the love of your life, but they can also be a minefield full of criminals in waiting, and users need to be aware of these scams so they can protect both their physical AND emotional assets from heart(broke).

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