October is observed as National Cyber Security Awareness Month in the United States. With summer ending and the holiday season approaching, October is often a time to celebrate romance, but it also can mean romance scams.
Romance or confidence fraud takes place when a cyber actor deceives a victim into believing they have a trust relationship and leverages the relationship to persuade the victim to send money, provide personal or financial information, or purchase items of value for the actor.
Cyber actors often use online dating sites or chat rooms to pose as U.S. citizens located in a foreign country, U.S. military members deployed overseas, or U.S. business owners seeking assistance with lucrative investments. These con artists create fake identities and trick the victim into thinking they are in a real relationship and then claim a short-term financial crisis and promise to pay the money back in a few days.
In 2018, romance / confidence fraud was the seventh most commonly reported scam to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), based on the number of complaints received, and the second costliest scam in terms of victim loss at $362 million.
The IC3 receives victim reports from all age, education and income brackets. However, people over 65 and those who have lost a spouse are often targeted. The next highest age group is young adults.
After establishing their victims’ trust, scammers try to convince them to send money for airfare to visit, or claim they are in trouble and need money. Victims often send money because they believe they are in a romantic relationship.
In some situations the victim may be unknowingly recruited as a “money mule”: someone who transfers money illegally on behalf of others. Cyber actors groom their victims over time and convince them to open bank accounts under the guise of sending or receiving funds.
Tips to Protect Yourself
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.
To perform a reverse image search on profile photos:
- Right click on the image and select “Search for image.”
- Right click again and select “Save image as” to save the photo to your device.
- Using a search engine, choose the small camera icon to upload the saved image into the search engine.
Always use your best judgment. While most dating sites routinely monitor account activity and investigate all complaints of falsified accounts, most dating site administrators do not conduct criminal background checks when an account is registered. Keep in mind, it is always possible for people to misrepresent themselves. Do not ignore any facts which seem inconsistent and be aware of the following common techniques used by romance scammers:
- Immediate requests to talk or chat on an email or messaging service outside of the dating site.
- Claims that your introduction was “destiny” or “fate,” especially early in communication.
- Claims to be from the U.S. but is currently living, working, or traveling abroad.
- Asks for money, goods, or any similar type of financial assistance, especially if you have never met in person.
- Asks for assistance with personal transactions (opening new bank accounts, depositing or transferring funds, shipping merchandise, etc.).
- Reports a sudden personal crisis and pressures you to provide financial assistance. Be especially wary if the demands become increasingly aggressive.
- Tells inconsistent or grandiose stories.
- Gives vague answers to specific questions.
- Claims to be recently widowed
- Disappears suddenly from the site then reappears under a different name using the same profile information.
The FBI advises:
- Never send money to someone you meet online, especially by wire transfer.
- Never provide credit card numbers or bank account information without independently 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.
What to do if You Are a Victim
If you are a victim of a romance scam, the FBI recommends taking the following actions:
- Report the activity to the Internet Crime Complaint Center, your local FBI field office, or both. Contact IC3 at www.ic3.gov. Local FBI field offices can be found online at www.fbi.gov/contact-us/field.
- Contact your financial institution immediately upon discovering any fraudulent or suspicious activity and direct them to stop or reverse the transactions.
- Ask your financial institution to contact the corresponding financial institution where the fraudulent or suspicious transfer was sent.
- Report the activity to the website where the contact was first initiated.