Pandemic isolation driving rise in romance-related scams

Published: Feb. 11, 2021 at 7:36 PM EST
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SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) - With Valentine’s Day right around the corner, the Federal Bureau of Investigation says if you’re searching for a partner on social media or a dating site, be cautious of romance scams.

It’s a con the agency says has been on the rise in the last year. Federal authorities say the COVID-19 pandemic has helped create potential new victims, and the scammers have taken advantage.

Look around Savannah’s squares or peek inside a flower shop, and it’s easy to see that love is in the air. But in the last year, thousands of Americans who thought they’d found love were actually being conned.

It’s a simple concept. An imposter reaches out to someone on social media or a dating platform, looking to an establish a relationship by pretending to have romantic interest.

“However, they’re doing this not in order to form a relationship, but in order to get money out of the person.”

Experts say the criminals behind these scams know exactly what they’re doing and they’re good at it.

“They’re looking for your vulnerability. In this case, it’s love. When people think they’re in love, it’s very hard to dissuade them from thinking that the person they think they’re in love with could be conning them,” FBI – Atlanta Public Affairs Specialist Kevin Rowson said.

It’s not a new scam. But with the coronavirus forcing many interactions to go virtual, including those in the dating scene, it’s opened new opportunities for criminals preying on those looking for love.

“They’re spending a lot more time on their gadgets. So, there are a lot more potential victims for these criminals to target,” Rowson said.

The Federal Trade Commission received more than 32,000 reports of romance scams in 2020. Continuing a drastic upward trend in cases. The reports in 2020 are nearly triple what they were just four years ago in 2016.

The FTC says reported losses topped $300 million last year. Up nearly 50 percent from 2019.

The FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center files romance scams under a broader category of confidence scams, but the agency says the trends they’re seeing are similar.

“In 2020, there were almost 24,000 victims nationwide. And the reported losses from these kinds of crimes was over $605 million,” Rowson said.

Anna Burns with the FTC says it’s not just folks are turning to social media and dating apps more, it’s also the increase in isolation from friends and family created by COVID that has helped these types of scams grow.

“With people not able to meet with one another face-to-face and also not being around friends and trusted loved ones who would be able to tell them they’re getting scammed, the numbers do continue to rise,” Burns said.

Burns says there are things to watch for.

If the person professes their love quickly, if they claim to be overseas, often for military or business purposes. If the person continually makes excuses for why they can’t speak in person or video chat, or encourages you to not discuss the relationship with friends and family. Finally, Burns says it should be a red flag if the person asks you for money - often to help with some emergency.

“If you haven’t met the person actually in person, the bottom line is you shouldn’t send them any money,” Burns said.

Experts say it’s a message they’re sharing, hoping to help people avoid a broken heart and an empty wallet.

The FTC and FBI say if you do send money to a scammer like this, it’s very difficult to get it back. But they say if you believe you’ve fallen victim to a romance scam, you should contact your bank and the social media site or dating app the person first contacted you.

You should also report it to the FTC and FBI.

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