What is romance fraud?
Romance fraud is a kind of scam led through social engineering techniques, used to leverage emotional relationships, to subsequently obtain financial gain or services. While people roam online to find love and companionship, scammers have found a way to make money out of it. And the business is booming. Although it is not a recent phenomenon, romance fraud has been increasingly popular, especially during the Covid-19 crisis where some people expressed emotional distress and loneliness.
Similar to the famous “Nigerian Prince” fraud, romance scams yearly amount to millions in losses. In 2021, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) reported that more than 91 million USD had been stolen from victims of such schemes in 2020 alone, a 51% rise compared to 2018 with 60.5 million USD in losses reported. According to the Scamwatch program led by the ACCC, dating & romance scams ranked second in terms of losses, above business email compromises. In the U.S., the Federal Trade Commission reported that 2021 acknowledged a ground-breaking record of 547 million USD in loss to romance fraud.
Romance scams may not only be committed to extort money from a victim, but also their personal information and credentials to carry other thefts or fraud schemes. Indeed, victims may also be manipulated by the perpetrator to become a money mule, and unwittingly help to launder money, using their own account or one created for this purpose.
How does romance fraud work?
As a modus operandi, scammers try to create a strong emotional connection or even a distant relationship with the victim, in order to extort money or lure them into investing in a scam (in many cases related to cryptocurrencies). A recurring timeline can be established as such:
- The victim meets the scammer on a dating app or a social network and they exchange a couple of messages. Through fake profiles, scammers attract their victims using attractive photos collected over the internet. Afterwards, the fraudster asks the victim to move onto another free, but encrypted messaging service;
- Time is spent to build the relationship (whether it’s weeks or months), for the victim to develop feelings for the scammer. Masters of social engineering, romance scammers usually conduct reconnaissance prior to engaging with the victim, to know their hobbies and pretend they have common interests. Moreover, they create excuses to explain why they cannot meet in person with the victim, often pretexting they work abroad (military, offshore rig, and so on…);
- Once the relationship is established, the scammer will start to deploy their plot. Whether he is pretexting to encounter a financial crisis, or presenting a too-good-to-be-true investment opportunity, it is now the time to make a move on the victim;
- Once the scammer has finally convinced the victim of the worthiness of the opportunity or the problematic situation he is in, the victim will wire money or do something on behalf of the fraudster;
- The fraud usually ends with the victim having no more money to transfer, starting to be doubtful of the fraudster’s real emotional intentions, or the latter vanishes.
Although some might believe that it is easy to spot, many stories reported that victims lost thousands to hundreds of thousands to romance scammers, usually being emotionally vulnerable. While the victims are often middle-aged women who are not tech-savvy, younger parts of the population (25 to 34 years old) are also in jeopardy when it comes to that kind of fraud.
What are the types of romance fraud?
Many other types of related scams exist in such context:
- Military romance scams: scammer will impersonate a military serviceman, as an excuse of not meeting in real life and for asking money to cover military-related expenses;
- Love bombing: More of a technique, love bombing is used to flood the victim with positive messages conveying emotions and affection, to gather their attention and make them feel important, in order to later obtain something from them;
- Catfishing: Victims are specifically targeted by a person who creates a fictional character, crafted to appeal to the victim, whether physically, intellectually, or emotionally.
Other types of romance scams may involve extortion after obtaining nude pictures, inheritance scams, or malwares deployed through dating websites.
How to avoid romance fraud
First, a person must be able to identify the warning signs and detect red flags:
- The person encountered online expressed very strong emotions rapidly, without even meeting his “significant other”;
- They send pictures that may appear as fake, or straight out from a fashion magazine;
- The person wants to quickly start speaking through other communication means (emails, messaging apps);
- They have plenty of excuses of why they cannot meet in real life or make video calls;
- Money or actions from the victim are requested while the bond is strong, to maximize chances that the victim will oblige.
As such, a certain number of good practices must be respected when chatting online with strangers:
- No money should be transferred to a person only met online and never in real life;
- No personal information should be provided to online persons, nevertheless the reason provided;
- No financial investment should be conducted under the supervision of someone met through dating applications or websites;
- No parcels should be received and forwarded on someone else’s behalf;
- Always make a small research and due diligence when in doubt, in order to confirm the person’s identity and determine the authenticity of their profile;
- In case fraud has been committed, related banks must be warned, and reports filed with local law enforcement agencies.