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Looking for Love Online This Valentine's Day? Watch for Romance Scammers Lurking in the Shadows

A mouse trap baited with a plastic heart sits on top of a keyboard.

Image source: Getty Images

If you're in a relationship, February can be filled with romance and reminders of the one you love. If you're single, well, let's just say Valentine's Day when you're a single person isn't always as fun. Especially during a pandemic.

Being a member of the lonely hearts club doesn't just put you at risk of an adverse reaction to the cards-and-flowers holiday known as Valentine's Day, though. It can also put you at risk of having your bank account drained -- which is a lot more frustrating than staying single.

Romance scams are a real issue, and while you may think you're immune to this type of crime, it's surprisingly easy to fall prey to scammers on your hunt for love. If you want to hop on a dating app for your shot at love this Valentine's Day, just be aware there could be scammers lurking in the shadows. Otherwise, you could end up broke and lonely -- and nobody wants that.

A record year for romance scams

The last year drained a lot of people financially, and not all due to the hit the economy sustained from the pandemic. A recent report from the Federal Trade Commission reveals that people lost a record amount of money to romance scammers in 2020.

Is that uptick caused by the social distancing that's keeping us from interacting with other humans in person? It's not clear. But what is clear: these losses are huge. We're talking $304 million dollars over the last year alone -- a record number for romance scams.

The stats don't end there, either. The FTC notes that the amount of money lost to romance scams in 2020 was up a whopping 50% from 2019, and it's an increase of more than fourfold from 2016, just four years prior.

Let's break down those numbers even further. The median loss reported to the FTC last year was about $2,500 per scam victim. That may not seem like a ton, but that is 10 times higher than the median loss from all other types of frauds.

Given the incredibly high rate of return, scammers have a lot to gain -- which translates to a lot to lose if you fall victim to these types of scams. That's why it's important to arm yourself with knowledge of what to watch for.

How do these scammers find victims?

The short answer? Making contact online. Dating apps, online dating sites, and especially social media have made virtual romance a gold mine for scammers. It's easy to operate under the guise of anonymity when there's nothing in place to verify your real identity. That's exactly what scammers capitalize on.

Many scammers use attractive photos stolen from other sites on the internet to draw victims in. That attractive person sliding into your DMs may not be who they say they are. And they may be using a photo of a model from an ad to lure you in.

These scammers are good at building online personas -- so good, in fact, that they've perfected the art of being imperfect. They often aim to be just real enough that it's believable. They don't want people questioning Mr. or Ms. Perfect.

They use these made-up personas to chat up lonely singles looking for connections, then prey on false hope of one day meeting in person. When that time comes around, they always have an excuse for why they can't meet or video chat or do anything else that would break their cover.

Prior to COVID, it was common for romance scammers to tell victims they were away for work and couldn't meet in person. According to the FTC, they'd often use things like a military deployment, a fake job on an oil rig, or a job as a doctor working for an international organization.

These days, the COVD-19 pandemic provides a perfect excuse to not meet. Scammers can say they need to stay physically distant and avoid in-person dates, making it even harder to spot who's real and who's taking you for a scammy ride. Drawing out the fake relationship longer helps them build the groundwork for the big score: your money.

After chatting you up for a while as the fake persona, a scammer eventually and inevitably asks for money. There are tons of excuses scammers use to make it seem like a legit request.

It could be a story about a lost job or an expensive medical emergency -- after all, who wouldn't want to help out a person they're online-dating who's in a medical crisis? Sometimes it's more elaborate, like sending money to you as part of a money-laundering scheme for something like fraudulently obtained unemployment benefits.

Whatever the story, there's one goal in mind: to get the money in your wallet. So how do you avoid these scams when in-person dating isn't the safest move?

How to avoid getting caught up in a romance scam

Navigating dating platforms and avoiding scams during COVID can be tough, but there are ways. Let's start with the basics. Your Spidey senses should tingle if:

  • The person seems too good to be true.
  • You're always given an excuse about why the person can't video chat or meet.
  • You're asked to wire money or send gift cards for an emergency, or with the promise of repayment.
  • The relationship and conversation seems rushed or superficial.
  • Anything else just seems wrong about the conversation or the person.

The key is to go with your gut. If something feels off, it probably is. Don't ignore your inner guide. And never, ever send money to a stranger on the internet or on a dating app for any reason.

The FTC report offers good guidance on what to do if you suspect you've fallen victim to a romance scam:

  • Stop communicating immediately. These scammers are often fast talkers who know how to get what they want.
  • Get the opinion of a trusted friend or family member about your new love interest.
  • Do your homework. That could be a search for similar stories to see if what you're dealing with is a common type of scam. For example, you could search for “oil rig scammer” or “Army scammer” to see if anyone else has reported becoming the victim of a similar scammer.
  • And, here's the big one: Do a reverse image search of the person’ profile picture. This is easy to do with a Google Images reverse search, and that simple step alone will usually tell you if the photo is borrowed from someone else. If it is, you're dealing with a scammer.

If you identify a scam or scammer on your hunt for love, you should also take the time to report the issue. Don't just report the problem to the app or website, either. Report it to the FTC at ftc.gov/complaint as well. That will help keep others from falling prey to the same person trying to get their hands on your money.

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