SACRAMENTO—The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Sacramento Field Office is raising awareness about romance scams and urging victims of the crime to reach out to law enforcement. Isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic has increased online communication and virtual connectivity, including the search for lifelong love. While many well-intentioned singles are seeking online matches, criminals lurk among them seeking to ensnare hearts and finances.
What is a romance scam? A romance scam is similar to “catfishing,” a situation in which a person creates a fake online identity to gain a victim’s affection and confidence, fostering the illusion of a romantic or close relationship. The difference is the person on the other end of the virtual relationship that is a romance scam is a cybercriminal who will exploit the victim for financial gain.
The principal victim group targeted by romance scammers is over 40 years old and divorced, widowed, elderly, or disabled; however, all demographics are at risk. In 2019, the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center received complaints from 2,206 California victims who experienced a combined total dollar loss of $107,853,977. Nationally, 19,473 individuals were victimized by confidence scams in 2019 resulting in a total dollar loss of $475,014,032. That’s a lot of broken hearts.
Romance scammers profit from exploiting their victims and are experts at their craft. Criminals search chat rooms, dating sites, and social networking sites looking for potential victims and often target unsuspecting individuals looking for love and companionship. Scammers often monitor social media accounts and glean information from online dating profiles and other sources to better understand how to manipulate and exploit their intended victims.
As the relationships progress, scammers spin tales of severe life circumstances, tragedies, deaths in the family, injuries to themselves, or other hardships to keep their victims concerned and involved in their schemes. The criminals frequently ask victims to send money to help overcome a financial situation they claim to be experiencing.
Criminals may also ask victims to receive funds in the form of a cashier’s check, money order, or wire transfer, claiming they are out of the country and unable to cash the instruments or receive the funds directly. The scammers ask victims to redirect the funds to them or to an associate to whom they purportedly owe money.
In some cases, the financial risk is less obvious. Scammers may ask victims to reship packages instead of redirecting funds. In these examples, victims risk losing money and may incur other expenses, such as bank fees and penalties, and, in some instances, may face prosecution.
To avoid becoming a romance scam victim:
Be careful of what you post and make public online. Scammers can use details shared on social media and dating sites to better understand and target you.
Be wary of anyone you first encounter online rather than in real life. People can pretend to be anything or anyone online.
Research a person’s photo and profile using online searches to see if the image, name, or details have been used elsewhere.
Go slowly and ask lots of questions.
Never send money to someone you meet online, especially by wire transfer.
Never provide credit card numbers or bank account information without verifying the recipient’s identity.
Never share your Social Security number or other personally identifiable information that can be used to access your accounts with someone who does not need to know this information.
Beware if your virtual beloved:
Seems too perfect or quickly asks you to leave a dating service or social media site to communicate directly.
Attempts to isolate you from friends and family.
Requests inappropriate photos or financial information that could later be used to extort you.
Promises to meet in person, but then always comes up with an excuse why he or she can’t. If you haven’t met the person after a few months, for whatever reason, you have good reason to be suspicious.
Keep in mind that most cyber criminals do not use their own photographs; they use an image from another social media account as their own. A reverse image search can determine if a profile picture is being used elsewhere on the Internet, and on which websites it was used. A search sometimes provides information that links the image with other scams or victims.
If you are a victim of a romance scam, seek help from law enforcement immediately. Report the activity to the Internet Crime Complaint Center at www.ic3.gov, the FBI Sacramento Field Office at (916) 746-7000, or both. Additionally, contact your financial institution immediately upon discovering any fraudulent or suspicious activity and direct them to stop or reverse the transactions. Please also report the activity to the website where the contact was first initiated to protect others from becoming victims.