A budding romance can be a wonderful thing, except when one party has fraudulent motives.
Bad romances are nothing new, but what is new is the proliferation of online romance scams that result in victims losing millions of dollars, suffering emotional distress and broken hearts.
According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), confidence/romance scams are a growing problem nationwide and across all demographics, especially among older Americans.
The FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) noted that in 2022, it received reports from 7,166 victims 60 and older who experienced almost $419 million in losses to confidence/romance scams.
“Confidence/Romance scams encompass those designed to pull on a victim’s ‘heartstrings’…. Romance scams occur when a criminal adopts a fake online identity to gain a victim’s affection and confidence. The scammer uses the illusion of a romantic or close relationship to manipulate and/or steal from the victim,” states IC3’s Elder Fraud Report 2022.
Aaron Seres, supervisory special agent of the FBI’s white-collar unit in Georgia, said romance/confidence scams resulted in $735 million loss for 19,021 victims nationwide in 2022. He noted that the scams escalated during the COVID isolation years when people were homebound and online communication increased dramatically. A 2022 FBI report indicates Georgia is the top 10 of states in internet crimes.
Seres said people 60 and older who fall victim to internet relationship fraud are less likely to share what’s happened to them due to embarrassment. Some victims have committed suicide.
Criminals, often based overseas in Asia, Africa, Europe and other countries, rely on dating apps, chat rooms and other social media platforms to cultivate relationships with those looking for friendships, love, and companionship.
Seres said too many people overshare while using social media and should be more cautious about their personal information.
“You don’t just open your front door and say just anyone come on in,” he said.
Unlike previous scams in which criminals quickly pressured victims to give them money, romance/relationship scammers often develop relationships over weeks and months.
“They have a master’s degree in stringing along individuals, building trusting relationships,” Seres said, adding that victims are more inclined to agree to a financial request from someone they feel they know and trust.
Scammers often tell victims money is needed for medical treatment, travel documents, legal problems, etc.
Although the FBI has made such scams one of its priorities, getting victims money back remains difficult, he said.
Seres said awareness of these scams can go a long way in deterrence. He advises individuals online to never give money to anyone they haven’t met in person. He also offers the following advice to prevent becoming a victim:
• Be wary of anyone online asking an abundance of questions and don’t overshare personal information such as assets, banking information, etc.
• Be aware that chat room “friends” may not be who they say they are and might attempt to lure victims into scams after building trust.
• Be skeptical of anyone who attempts to build a relationship online but avoids meeting in person.
• Look for red flags and be proactive in asking questions of online acquaintances.
• Be suspicious of photos being shared and do internet searches to see if images are stock photography from online sources.
Some con artists are so bold they dupe victims even after being released from prison.
In 2022, Brian Wedgeworth, known as the “Casanova Scammer,” admitted he conned his way into the lives and bank accounts of dozens of women he met online, according to various local news reports. Wedgeworth swindled more than 12 women in eight states of millions of dollars after he was released from prison where he served time for victimizing a DeKalb County woman the same way, the reports state. He was sentenced to nine years in prison.
Victims are not all silver haired. Seres recalled a 40-year-old woman who “drained her 401K” for someone with whom she thought she was romantically involved.
Those who fall victim to confidence/romance scams should immediately file a report with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center at ic3.gov as well as contacting one’s financial institution and freezing one’s credit, according to Seres.
He also advised that scammers often will attempt to re-victimize those they have bilked by pretending to be with a law enforcement agency or organization that can help the victim get their money back.
Seres said he prefers for people to seek relationships in person and advises those who pursue romance/ friendships online to “think twice” and proceed with “a healthy level of skepticism.”