Fraud Prevention Tips

Romance Scams: What They Are and How to Beat Them

(6 Minute Read) — Scammers love to take advantage of lonely hearts as these people are typically vulnerable and willing to make new love connections online.

In this article we’ll explain what a romance scam is, how to recognize one, how to stay safe, and what to do if you or someone you know is involved in or has experienced a romance scam.

What is a romance scam?

Also commonly known as sweetheart scams, romance scam fraudsters look for unsuspecting lonely hearts online using fake social media accounts or dating sites to quickly establish fraudulent relationships. Their intention is to endear the victim, gain their trust, and eventually ask for money.

These nefarious actors will even go as far as a marriage proposal, or make plans to meet in person, but of course that will never happen.

According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), reports of money lost on romance scams increased for every age group in 2020. The median loss of romance/sweetheart scams as reported was $2,500 and for people over 70, those losses jump to nearly $10,000.

In 2020, reported losses to romance scams reached a record $304 million, up about 50% from 2019.

romance scam reports over time chart

What are common signs of romance scams?

Here are some examples of the common lies scammers tell their victims in a romance scam:

  • In order to avoid meeting in person (even though they say they want to), scammers will commonly say they live or are working outside of the United States.

The FTC has heard about scammers claiming they can’t meet their victim because they are:

  • oil rig workers
  • in the military
  • a doctor with an international organization
  • Romance scammers will ask their victims for money to pay for:
    • medical expenses
    • gambling debts
    • travel documents like a passport or visa
    • moving expenses to move the victim there or to move the fraudster closer
    • travel expenses like plane tickets
  • Scammers get their victim’s money in a few ways by asking them to pay:
    • by wiring money
    • using reloadable bank cards or gift cards from vendors like Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, etc.

You might be asking yourself, why gift cards? With these cards, scammers can get quick access to cash while remaining anonymous, plus they know transactions are nearly impossible to reverse.

  • Another variation is where victims are duped into providing online banking login credentials. It works like this:

    1. The scammer logs into the account and uses the account-to-account external transfer feature to initiate ACH debits against accounts at other institutions, pulling funds into the victim’s account for deposit, or deposit fraudulent checks via mobile remote deposit capture. They will assure the victim that they are sending funds to help with moving expenses or because they don’t have a bank account due to being overseas. The victim doesn’t know the funds are fraudulent until they are returned after the money has been spent.

    2. The victim is instructed to send the funds to the scammer by Western Union or MoneyGram.

    3. The ACH debits are subsequently returned to the financial institution as unauthorized up to 60 days later, and checks are returned unpaid.

How can I protect against romance scams?

With a little intuition and knowledge you’ve gained by reading this article, you can protect yourself and others against romance scams. Follow these tips to stay safe.

  1. Stop communicating. If an online love interest asks you for money or any type of payment via gift card or money transfer, stop communicating with this person immediately. Anyone who does this is a scammer, always!
  2. Verify the facts. Make sure the person is who they claim to be and pay close attention to what they say. Ask a lot of cross-referencing questions and look for inconsistent answers. Go a step further and ask for their mobile number so that you can call them back. Finally, talk to someone you trust, like your inner circle of family and friends. Pay attention if they are concerned about your new love interest.
  3. Internet research. Do an internet search for search terms like “romance scammer” or “military scammer” to see if there are stories or instances of similar online love interest scenarios that end up costing the victim.
  4. Social media/reverse image search. It amazing how much information you can find out about someone just by doing a simple social media search and/or reverse image search. Poke around the major social media sites listed earlier, and see if the same profile photo of your online love interest pops up on other profiles with another name or details that don’t match up. Typically, these are signs of a scam.

“Never send money or gifts to a sweetheart you haven’t met in person”


What if I’m the victim of a romance scam?

If you’ve fallen victim to a romance scam, here are some steps you need to take immediately:

  1. If you paid the scammer with a money order or wire, contact the financial service or institution you used to send the money and ask to cancel the transaction if possible. Be sure to report the fraud to them.
  2. If you paid the scammer using a gift card, contact the company that issued the card and inform them you just paid a scammer with a gift card and ask if they can refund your money. Be sure to report the fraud to them as well.
  3. Call the police and give them as much information as you can.
  4. The FTC recommends that you file a complaint online at ftc.gov. You can also report your experience to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center at ic3.gov.
  5. If you prefer, you can also call you state’s Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Hotline and ask that a complaint form be mailed to you:

Share and Help Educate Others

Now you know all about romance scams…the signs, how to protect yourself, and how to report them. As a good friend and family member, share this information with anyone you know that may be in danger of falling victim to a romance scam. Help them stay safe and keep their hard-earned money where it belongs – safely in their possession!

To learn more about other types of common scams to be aware of, be sure to visit our Security page.

This is our third week of our August Against Fraud series, where we break down a new scam every week throughout August. Stay tuned every Monday in August to learn how to stop fraud in its tracks. And follow our social media feeds all month long (like Facebook and Instagram) for more helpful fraud-busting information, quizzes, and other insights to stay safe and well. We’ll see you next week.


About the author: DJ Jones

DJ joined the Unitus Community Credit Union family in May 2018 to lead the Fraud & Security Department.

She brings over twenty-five years’ experience in investigations with a background that encompasses data breach remediation, identity theft restoration, insurance and legal investigations and financial services.

Originally from Alabama (Roll Tide!), Portland has been her home for 20 years. She and her wife are self-described foodies that love to travel and explore.

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