Valentine’s Day is prime time for romance scams, former victim warns, FBI

With the biggest day of the year for romance looming and Americans’ use of dating sites and apps showing no signs of waning, people should be aware that criminals could be feigning affection for scam would-be lovers, said an FBI agent and a woman who dodged such a fraudster.

The rise of dating sites and dating apps is well documented. In February 2020, before the covid-19 pandemic pushed people indoors and more online, Pew Research published a study suggesting that 30% of American adults had used these services to search for love, and this percentage increased from 18 to 29 years old. old, reaching 48%.

As expected, the pandemic has had its effect on online dating. In March 2020, Tinder had 3 billion swipes in one day, an all-time high, Fortune magazine reported. From March to May of that year, OkCupid reported a 700% increase in dates.

The increase in activity came as the number of online scams and romance scams was already on the rise, with the number of reported victims doubling nationally between 2015 and 2020, said James Dawson, special agent in charge of the FBI field office in Little Rock. In 2020, nearly 24,000 people reported falling victim to these scams, he said.

In Arkansas, 149 people reported being victims of romance scam or fraud in 2020, with losses of more than $1.8 million, according to statistics from the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center.

Although some scammers take more money than others, the losses can be huge. Over the same period, the amount of money reported lost has risen from around $200 million to more than $600 million, Dawson said, and losses in 2021 are expected to top $1 billion.

On average, victims lose about $47,000, Dawson said, and surveys of accounts used by these scammers reveal that they frequently defraud as many as 100 people at a time.

“It’s very lucrative for scammers,” Dawson said.

Typically, scammers approach people, appearing very affectionate, caring, trustworthy and above all convincing, Dawson said. They can play their game for weeks or months, building trust with the target even before asking for money.

“They will always have a viable story” about why they can’t appear on a video call, or can’t meet, or why they pretend to be Americans but have thick accents, Dawson said.

Sometimes they don’t ask for money, but instead offer that the victim keep large sums of money for them. Either way, their game is to steal a brand’s personal information.

“That’s their line of work. They’re very good at it,” Dawson said.

For one Texas woman, some of these signs set off red flags, but she still felt abandoned when she discovered a man she had been chatting with for weeks was a fraudster.

Yvonne Harlan, 68, who lives near Houston, turned to Tinder to experiment with the dating scene while working from home during the pandemic.

Harlan has a grown son and recently became a grandmother, she said. She is close to her family, but felt lonely during the pandemic and wondered if online dating would be right for her.

“I’m in isolation and I don’t have a date,” Harlan said. “I have a wonderful family, but I have no one to go to the movies with, no one to hang out with, no one to travel with.”

On Tinder, she met a man who said his name was Robert Bruno. He claimed to be 57 and was attractive, Harlan said. He messaged her and immediately came across as fun and upbeat, Harlan said. Very quickly, he asked if he could text her outside of the app, she said.

“I didn’t realize that was one of the red flags,” Harlan said.

He even offered to talk to her on the phone, which initially made Harlan feel a little more comfortable. Bruno had a thick accent, she noticed, but also a quick explanation: he had immigrated from Italy years before. He also sometimes used odd spelling and grammar. She later learned that it was common for foreign scammers to use Google Translate and other apps.

He revealed that his wife cheated on him with his friend and business partner, which led to a split.

“It’s part of their scam profile,” Harlan said, saying she learned these kinds of tragic stories were common.

But it seemed pretty authentic and “everything matched,” Harlan said.

They started talking on the phone every night, sometimes late into the evening. At one point when she asked if they could talk earlier in the day, he said he was in Turkey on a business trip and could only call at that time. -the.

They had planned to meet in person, but he suddenly called off, saying something had happened at work.

“Not meeting in person is kind of the biggest red flag,” Harlan said.

At that time, Harlan was suspicious, she said. She had heard of catfishing – people pretending to be someone they weren’t online – but was unaware of the scams.

“If I had known the words romance scam, I would have known what was going on,” Harlan said.

Eventually Bruno started asking her to keep some money for him. Once it was from his late father’s estate, once he offered to give him some money to buy a house. Eventually, she accepted, but when he asked her for her personal and banking information to make the transfer, she understood that everything was wrong. She cut it off.

“They tell you they love you, they tell you you’re beautiful, they send you flowers,” Harlan said. “They’ve got this whole reality that they’re creating, and it feels real. Somehow, this man got me hooked on this whole fiasco.”

Harlan hasn’t lost any money, which she attributes to her profession – she’s a paralegal – and her relative degree of online literacy.

“Your grandma, sitting in front of the computer and being harassed by a criminal, she doesn’t know that,” Harlan said.

In the end, all Harlan was able to find out about the man who tried to scam him was that the photos he used were stolen, after performing a reverse image search, which uses a search engine like Google to show other places where an image has been uploaded.

It turns out that the photos used by the scammer are of a man living in California, and he is well aware that his photos are frequently stolen. In an Instagram post, he joked that he was “regular catfish bait,” Harlan said.

“He has these old women who write to him and who fell in love with him,” she laughed. “So I guess it’s just kind of a joke for him.”

Harlan reported her scammer to the FBI, but officers gave no hope that catching the scammer was likely, she said.

Harlan thinks the older generation is more susceptible to this kind of scam because baby boomers were raised to trust and think the best of people. They couldn’t even imagine a scam like this.

“And that sounds really hokey, but it’s true,” Harlan said.

Although older people, especially women, who may lack the online knowledge to see the warning signs remain a key target, young people are not immune, warned David McClellan, founder of SocialCatfish, a company that tries to prevent these scams by offering tools to verify the identity of people online.

“Gen Z is being scammed faster than ever,” McClellan said. “They’re too confident online, they’re too influenced by people online. They don’t think these scams can happen to them.”

For younger kids, social media apps like TikTok are full of scams, McClellan said. In fact, social media sites are starting to rival dating sites and apps for scam volume.

McClellan pointed out that the victims of these scams aren’t stupid, they just feel the need to trust the people they seem to click with online. But at least they should know that the best way to avoid getting scammed is to simply refuse to send or receive money.

“If someone came up to you on the street, told you they love you, and then two weeks later asked you for money, you probably wouldn’t do it,” McClellan said. “And it shouldn’t be any different on the internet.”

Dawson, the FBI agent, agreed.

“Someone who cares about you isn’t going to rob you,” he said.

Unfortunately, embarrassment can lead to underreporting of these crimes, McClellan said. He estimated that only one in three people report these scams.

“These numbers are underinflated right now. We need to raise awareness about that,” McClellan said.

Dawson stressed that a victim should report a scam as soon as possible on the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center website if the person hopes to recoup their losses.

“A lot of times we’ve found that people don’t want to accept that they’ve been victimized, and that’s unfortunate,” Dawson said.

Prosecutions and arrests related to this crime are fairly common, Dawson said, and the agency is able to obtain search warrants for accounts used by scammers and even seek jurisdiction to prosecute international criminals.

McClellan had a somewhat less rosy view of the FBI’s effectiveness, though he stressed that agents are victims’ best bet.

In his experience, he said, most victims don’t get much follow-up on their dealings with the FBI, and the scammers are often able to hide safely abroad out of reach. from the FBI.

That’s why prevention is so important, McClellan said. His company offers ways for people to search phone numbers, email addresses and photos to see if there’s any evidence the person isn’t who they say they are.

Harlan mostly gave up on her experience with the scammer, she said.

“I tried not to blame myself.”

This, however, deterred her from online dating, especially Tinder. She’s more interested in spending time with her family than trying to match someone her age online.

“I don’t want a sad grandpa,” she joked.

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