National Consumers League

Personal Finance

NCL Personal Finance Issues

Avoid a Valentine’s Day hangover: Don’t fall for a romance scam

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love stinks

Think you're lucky in love? People who find that special someone online could be in for a rude awakening if they don’t take precautions against con artists, who use clever tactics to meet victims online, form a bond and gain their trust, and bilk them out of hard-earned money.

At first, it seems like the perfect match. You meet someone online that you can really connect with, who is everything you’ve ever dreamed of in a significant other. As the relationship develops, you start to talk seriously about meeting each other face-to-face. It’s a big step in any online relationship, but it seems like the two of you just click so why wouldn’t you take a chance on love? When the request for money to help with travel expenses comes, you send the money. After all, it seems like a small price to pay for the chance at a lifetime of happiness.

Unfortunately, this scenario is what happens all too often to victims of the romance scam. A scam artist is the person on the other end of the relationship, who knows just how to make someone believe a story and ultimately send money. If the victim sends money, it’s followed by additional requests for cash, which continue until the victim either catches on to the scam or runs out of money.

A woman we’ll call “Sarah” recently shared her story with Fraud.org. Sarah met a man calling himself “Robert” on a popular online dating website. Robert claimed to be from Georgia and he and Sarah began exchanging emails and text messages.

A few weeks into the relationship, he told Sarah that he was sent on business to the Philippines. While allegedly abroad, he claimed that he was robbed, had emergency surgery, and was arrested for tax evasion among other misfortunes. He asked Sarah to send him money to help him get back on his feet and make the return journey to the U.S. He promised to pay her back once he had access to his late wife’s safe deposit box back home. 

Robert convinced Sarah to help and she sent the money. Before she caught on to the scam, Sarah had lost almost $30,000.

Sarah is not alone. In 2013, romance and friendship scams were the 10th-most reported type of scam to Fraud.org. They were also by far the most expensive type of scam for their victims, with losses averaging more than $13,000 per incident. It’s not surprising to see why, either. Love is one of the most powerful emotions. What wouldn’t you do to help out someone with whom your share a deep connection? Scammers operating these scams are skilled in manipulating their victim, gaining their target’s trust, and ultimately defrauding them of as much money as possible.

This Valentine’s Day, NCL is urging consumers to learn more about these scams so that they can spot the warning signs and avoid a costly fraud. Red flags include:

Any request to send money from someone you’ve never met in real life.

Wire transfer services like Western Union and Moneygram are favorites of scammers, but we’ve also received complaints where the victim is asked to send money via bank transfers, prepaid debit cards (like Green Dot MoneyPaks), newer services like Xoom, or even mailing cash stuffed inside magazines or books.

The person you’re communicating with says they are located overseas.

A favorite tactic by romance scammers is to claim to be a U.S. citizen who is temporarily out of the country on business or military deployment.

Requests to communicate outside of an online dating sites’ internal messaging system.

Many online dating sites monitor their messaging services for suspicious activity. Romance scammers will often ask to use other communications technologies such as instant messenger, text messaging, or email.

Requests to cash a check or money order from someone you’ve never met in real life.

Often, the check is fake and the scammer is only trying to get you to cash the check and wire her or him the proceeds before your bank catches on.

Allusions to great wealth.

Romance scammers will often claim that they have access to or are about to have access to significant amounts of money. With their victim’s financial help, they claim they’ll be able to access the cash and potentially share it with their “lover."

Think you're a victim of a Sweetheart Swindle? Report it to Fraud.org.