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Romance scams: what are they and how to protect yourself

Romance scams are one of the fastest-growing types of online fraud. In this article, we help you understand how to recognize romance scams and give you some key information to better protect yourself.

5 min read

Have you ever heard of romance scams? Although they affect people on an individual scale, romance scams are one of the biggest and fastest-growing categories of online fraud. More than €4.5 million was stolen in Italy in 2021 alone, with sums reaching up to $547 million in the United States and £30.9 million in the UK in the same year. Not only do these devastating scams hit victims in the wallet, but they can also leave a serious emotional and psychological mark. 

In this article, we’ll help you understand the playbook that romance scammers use. Plus, we’ll arm you with some tips to spot this type of fraud and protect yourself.

 

What’s a romance scam?

To recognize a romance scam and learn how to avoid it, we first have to understand what it is. A romance scam is a type of online fraud where the scammer manipulates their victim into voluntarily transferring money—sometimes very large sums.

First, victims of romance scams are approached by an unknown admirer, usually over a social network. The scammer slowly builds a relationship of trust and affection. They mainly target women, typically in their 50s, but men are targeted too, and they often take advantage of people who are lonely or under emotional strain. 

According to this report by the Italian Postal Police, victims are typically people who have just come out of a romantic relationship that ended badly. They also often have children and are in a financial or employment situation that is advantageous for scammers. While men are usually lured with sexually explicit images—the goal being “sextortion,” or extorting money by threatening to release the images—women are more commonly swayed by the promise of a passionate romantic relationship.  

And it’s not just in Italy: romance scams are skyrocketing worldwide. For example, police in Canada and Côte d’Ivoire arrested 18 people in 2020 for allegedly running an international romance scam that went on for several years. The strategies used to carry out this type of scam are common across all corners of the internet—no matter where you live.

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How do romance scams start?

As with other phishing scams, romance fraudsters work online. They often use social networking sites such as Facebook or Twitter, but the most common method of hooking a victim is through dating apps and websites. 

When planning an online romance scam, scammers don’t choose their victims blindly. Instead, they carefully identify the perfect victim and gather as much information about them online as possible. This gives scammers the appearance of having a lot in common with their victims, who are fooled by the seemingly incredible chemistry. Scammers also make the victim believe they’re interested in starting a serious relationship. 

The scammers’ fake identities are never left to chance and are skillfully constructed. First, they create a broad network of connections on social media to avoid suspicion, carefully constructing a plausible backstory and choosing attractive profile pictures—often stolen from other unsuspecting people. Sometimes, the criminals pose as successful entrepreneurs, wealthy heirs, or military personnel serving in war-torn countries. 

Messages are not sent too frequently at the start, as this might make the scammer look obsessive and could arouse suspicion. Instead, the scammer builds up the conversation little by little, slowly revealing intimate details until they’ve reached a level of trust with their current target.

After establishing this intimate relationship online, the scammer then starts to ask for money, claiming things like serious health issues or personal emergencies. Or, the scammer will ask the victim to purchase travel tickets, supposedly so that the couple can meet in person. Some scammers might even propose buying a house to live in together. Emotionally dependent on the fraudulent relationship, the victim believes the other person has real feelings for them and starts to send money. Once the money has been received, the criminal disappears, cutting off all contact and leaving a trail of financial and emotional damage behind them.

 

Impact of romance scams and tips on how to stay safe

Falling for a romance scam can be tough to cope with, both financially and emotionally. Not only are victims facing the financial consequences of the scam, their mental health and sense of self-worth might have been damaged. They may struggle to seek help or file a complaint, either because they feel ashamed or because they aren’t sure of how to take action. And because scammers use fake identities, there might not be much of a trail for police to follow.

 

Here are our tips to avoid falling victim to a romance scam:

  • Learn more about scams that circulate on Instagram and Facebook—in 2021, more than a third of romance scams started on those two platforms.
  • Stay up to date on which sites scammers are using—a quick search online every once in a while goes a long way to keeping you informed and safe.
  • Always check the name and profile pictures of people who contact you to make sure they haven’t been reported by other users in the past.
  • Be wary of messages with a lot of grammar and spelling mistakes.
  • Be wary of people who insistently ask for money.
  • Let your friends and family know about anyone you’re regularly speaking to online.
  • Never transfer money to anyone you met online and don’t know personally.

Both before making contact and while building the relationship, scammers carry out a full-blown intelligence operation to gain access to your confidential data. So, it’s crucial to protect your online identity and always check who might have access to your personal information.

 

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