The romance scam or “sweetheart scam” is a type of confidence scheme where a fraudster uses manipulative social tactics to trick people into sending them money or sensitive personal information. The growing popularity of quick and convenient person-to-person mobile payment systems like Zelle, Venmo, and Cash App can increase personal risk for those who are unprepared. The money transfer services are safe and secure as long as you’re only sending money to people that you know and trust. Once a scammer tricks you into sending funds, it’s often too late because once you’ve made the transfer the money exits your account.
Whether it’s you or a loved one who may be at risk, informing yourself is your best defense. Here’s what you need to know about sweetheart scams:
Why are sweetheart scams effective?
Thousands of people successfully find love through online dating. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the success stories on commercials, or those told by our family and friends, but it’s important to remember that not everyone we meet is who they say they are—primarily online. Scam artists have found online dating apps and social media sites to be an incredibly effective means of manipulating the emotions of their victims to convince them to give away their money willingly. It’s easy to say “that won’t happen to me” or “I’m too savvy for that to work,” but time and time again, it’s proven that when strong emotions are involved, even the best of us will ignore or miss the signs of a sweetheart scam.
Typically, sweetheart scammers build trust with their victims by interacting in a seemingly genuine way—chatting through social media, exchanging photos and sharing intimate information about themselves. As the relationship with this seemingly genuine con artist progresses, they will inevitably need help, and you’ll have the opportunity to be the hero. Long gone are the days of Nigerian princes requesting your assistance with promises of riches to follow; these emotionally charged scams are effective because they target our need to be loved and valued. In fact, as a testament to the effectiveness of these scams, the Federal Trade Commission reported that more than 21,000 people fell victim to romance-related scams in 2018, resulting in a loss of over $143 million—nearly $7,000 per victim. These losses can come in the form of lost savings, investments, or going into debt to help your “sweetheart”.
How does a sweetheart scam work?
Sweetheart scams often target the elderly and those under 30, though anyone can fall for their tricks. The basic criteria for becoming a victim is a desire to form a relationship and a willingness to do so online. Fraudsters make their living by scamming people out of their money and they’re very good at convincing their victims of their sincerity. They’re often out of town, out of the country, or otherwise unavailable to meet in person.
Here’s an example of a common scam:
Joe is divorced and recently decided that he is ready to start dating again. Both for his convenience, and to soften the blow of rejection, Joe has downloaded online dating apps to meet new people. He’s had some interesting conversations, but nothing has progressed past a few days of messaging. One day, he receives a message from someone he’s never spoken with before—a woman named Nancy. She seems to be very interested in Joe’s life, asking him questions about work and what he enjoys doing. She’s also willing to tell him various details about her own life. Over the next few days and weeks, Joe begins to look forward to their frequent and detailed chats—it feels nice to have someone to talk with, it feels like he’s getting to know Nancy.
Eventually, Nancy has a problem—her phone breaks and she can’t afford a new one. She’s bummed that she won’t be able to chat as frequently. At this point, Joe has become emotionally invested in Nancy’s struggles, and has a personal stake in the outcome, so he offers to send her $500—it’s not much money to him, he can afford it and he’s happy to help. Nancy is extremely grateful; she tells Joe to wire the money to a friend of hers who will get the money to her for the replacement phone. Joe has built up some trust and shown that he really cares—he’s undoubtedly not sending hundreds of dollars to every girl that he meets online. A few weeks later, Nancy has another problem. Now her car has died and the repairs are expensive. She says she feels terrible about asking Joe for help again, but there’s no one else. Then a sick pet, legal fees, moving expenses, medical bills, the cycle of financial hardship repeats until Joe no longer has funds to provide, or gets wise to the scam.
Romance scammers use powerful emotional manipulation to trick their victims into giving up thousands of dollars. Victims do not want to admit that they’re a victim—in the short run, it’s often easier to believe the potential romantic partner than it is to believe that they made a mistake. Realizing that you’re deeply involved in a scam is hard, that’s why it’s essential to remain vigilant and proactive whenever interacting with strangers online and to heed the internal alarms as soon as we feel that something might be awry with our digital Casanova.
Anyone can fall for a sweetheart scam, but there are steps you can take to prevent yourself and your loved ones from falling victim to online fraud.
How can you avoid getting defrauded?
To avoid financial loss as the result of an online scam, consider these tips:
- Be wary of strangers online: If you have not met them in person, they’re a stranger. If someone who you have not met in person contacts you online, question their intentions for reaching out to you. How did they find you? Why did they choose to contact you? Remember, just because someone has a profile picture and shows interest in you, it does not mean they are who they say they are. They may not even live in the same country as you—they could have stolen an entire identity and created a very realistic persona.
- Never send money to a stranger: If you have never met someone in person and they ask you for money online, the only reasonable answer is “No”. Scammers will often start with a small amount to gain your trust, but there’s always a more significant request around the corner. It doesn’t have to start at $500 for a new cell phone; it could be $5 for a cup of coffee. Once you start sending money or giving access to your funds, the requests will gradually escalate.
- Never give someone your banking credentials: Another common scam is for a person to ask you for your Digital Banking login to deposit a check, or asking you to deposit a check on their behalf and return some of the funds for their “emergency”. In either case, the check is bad, and they either use your credentials to steal the money from your account or, after you deposit their check and you have sent the funds, it turns out that their check is bad and you lose the funds. As a part of this scam, it’s common that the person will offer you a “reward” for helping, usually a few hundred dollars from the deposit. It’s important to know that if you give up your banking credentials, it’s near impossible to recover your funds. A good rule of thumb: if you’re not willing to add someone to your bank account, you should not give them your banking credentials.
How can you help prevent sweetheart scams?
To help prevent financial loss as the result of an online romance scam, consider these tips:
- Check in with your vulnerable family members: Sweetheart scammers often target the elderly and the young because they are less familiar with online fraud and various technology that can leave them vulnerable. It’s a good idea to check in with your older relatives, try to be involved with their life and ask about anything that seems suspicious to you. If you suspect one of your family members is falling prey to a scammer, have a frank conversation with them about your concerns. Discussing the authenticity of a new romantic interest can be a sensitive topic, so approach loved ones with care.
- Consider traditional dating methods: Online dating is convenient and can offer more immediate validation, but with ease comes greater personal risk. Meeting up with people you’ve only met online carries an inherent danger to your personal safety. To avoid harmful situations, consider alternative dating methods such as attending events and meeting people through personal connections. If online dating is too hard to resist, consider using apps or sites that vet their users for authenticity—typically these sites charge a fee.
- Do your research: The internet can be an excellent place to share conversations with people who have interests similar to your own. However, initially innocuous online relationships can turn toxic over time. To get a better idea of who you’re talking to, use Google to confirm the information they’ve told you. These days, most people have a significant online presence. If you can’t find a trace of someone through a simple Google search, proceed with caution. If you can’t find anything online and they say they’re “just a private person,” why would they reach out to you and divulge personal info online? Be cautious when the facts don’t line up.
If you’re a victim, don’t let shame stop you from contacting law enforcement: Falling victim to a scammer might be embarrassing, but it can happen to anyone. The best con artists can fool even the experts. When you suspect fraud has occurred, contact your financial institutions and the authorities immediately to give yourself the best opportunity to protect your funds and recover losses.
Sweetheart scams are one of many types of online fraud. To learn more about protecting yourself and your financial assets, review even more common scams today.