Love & Money is a MarketWatch series looking at how our relationship with money impacts our relationships with significant others, friends and family.
Roses are red, violets are blue — the gorgeous date you met online may be scamming you.
Federal authorities on Thursday announced an indictment charging 80 people with stealing at least $46 million through a network of schemes that targeted businesses, the elderly and anyone looking for love online. Most of the defendants are Nigerians, the Associated Press reported. “We believe this is one of the largest cases of its kind in U.S. history,” U.S. Attorney Nick Hanna told a news conference. “We are taking a major step to disrupt these criminal networks.”
One Japanese woman, cited in the case, lost $200,000 trying to help a man she believed to be a U.S. Army captain in his efforts to smuggle himself and his friends out of Syria. The woman met him online and had been emailing for 10 months. There was no such army captain. “F.K. was and is extremely depressed and angry about these losses,” the federal complaint states. “She began crying when discussing the way that these losses have affected her.”
Romance-related scams are now the most costly form of online fraud, the Federal Trade Commission warned earlier this year. Losses from dating-related fraud quadrupled in recent years, ballooning from $33 million lost in 2015 to $143 million lost in 2018. In many of these scenarios, people are convinced by strangers they meet online — often on dating apps — to fork over money.
‘These kinds of romance scams are very targeted social engineering attacks, effectively ‘hacking’ the victim’s emotions, rather than trying to perform a technical assault.’
“These kinds of romance scams are very targeted social engineering attacks, effectively ‘hacking’ the victim’s emotions, rather than trying to perform a technical assault,” Nathan Wenzler, senior director of cybersecurity at Seattle-Wash. accounting, consulting, and wealth management firm Moss Adams, said.
The number of romance scams reported to the FTC increased to more than 21,000 in 2018, up from 8,500 in 2015 . People targeted by these scams reported a median loss of $2,600, according to the FTC. Losses are even higher for older age groups, with people 70 and over reporting the biggest median loss at $10,000.
In a typical scenario, a victim meets someone through a dating website or other online space. The person claims to live far away and asks them to wire money for “emergency” costs like a sick relative, a car repair, or even an airline ticket so they can meet up in real life.
Case in point: A woman came across a man on dating app Tinder claiming to be a U.S. Army captain and quickly fell for him. He had promised to take care of her and her children, according to a report from Gizmodo, if he could just have money to get home. By the time she realized she was being swindled, she had sent him more than $700.
After that, he blackmailed her with nude photos for more money. “I don’t know if you can help, but I’m scared,” the woman wrote in a complaint to the Federal Trade Commission. “I just think its wrong to victimize and rob people, just because they’re lonely and vulnerable.”
As more Americans turn to dating apps for romance, the risk of being swindled by fake accounts has also grown. The online dating industry in the U.S. is worth more than $1 billion, according to market research group IBISWorld. Malware bots prey on singletons swiping through Tinder IAC, -1.10% and other location-based dating apps, in an attempt to trick them into handing over valuable information like bank account numbers or passwords.
Helped by data breaches and social media, these attacks are becoming more common in part because scammers are better able to find information about the victims online in advance and personalize their swindling efforts, Wenzler said. Data breaches have been soaring in recent years, with more than 1,300 in 2018 compared to just 200 in 2005.
Helped by data breaches and social media, scammers are better able to find information about the victims online in advance and personalize their swindling efforts.
“One of the side effects of the huge number of data breaches we’ve seen over the last several years is that more and more personal data is out and available for attackers to use,” Wenzler said. “Armed with these personal details, it becomes much easier to have conversations that may interest the victim, build trust and ultimately pose a request for money that appeals to some aspect of their personal life that the attacker has discerned from their cache of the victim’s information.”
To avoid these scams, the FTC recommends never sending money or gifts to an online sweetheart you haven’t met in person. Be wary of people who decline to use photos of themselves or speak on the phone. You can also use Google Image GOOG, -2.31% search to copy and paste the profile image to ensure it is not a photo being reused from elsewhere online.
Location-based dating apps like The Grade and Tinder want members to connect through FB, -2.15% to create more transparency about age and real first names (or, at least, as they are given to Facebook). On Facebook, there’s a limit to how many times users can change their birth date, even if they don’t publicly display it. If someone changes it and wants to change it again, they will likely have to wait a few days before they can edit it anew.
If you believe you’ve been the victim of a dating scam, you can report it to the FTC online using its complaint form. The FTC suggests users include the website where they met the scammer in a complaint. Wenzler suggests that on any online dating platform users should be mindful of potential attacks and take things slowly.
“Remember that it’s ok to say “no”, and to be skeptical until you’ve met the person face-to-face and built a stronger trust relationship,” he said. “After all, if that person truly is the one, they aren’t likely to put you in this kind of compromising situation in the first place.”
(This story was updated on Aug. 23, 2019.)