(CNN) — We expect love to have an emotional impact on us, but a new report released by the Federal Trade Commission revealed it’s also hurting wallets. A record $304 million was reported lost to romance scams in 2020.
Scammers lurk on dating apps and social media, striking up conversation with strangers until they build up trust to eventually ask for money. The prevalence of these types of scams has been steadily rising for the past four years. In 2020, there was a 50% jump in reported dollar losses from romance scams from 2019. The pandemic has only made things easier, creating legitimate reasons for scammers to hide their real motives, claiming they cannot meet in person or need money for medical treatment.
The FTC estimated on average $2,500 was sent to romance scammers in 2020, more than 10 times the median loss across all fraud types. Given the rampant use of social media and rise of online dating services, the opportunity for scammers to prey on individuals is only growing, explained Emma Fletcher, an analyst at the FTC.
“To be able to make that connection and do it remotely is something that may not have been possible a decade ago, but it’s very much possible and socially quite common now for people to make love connections online and they’re taking advantage of that,” Fletcher said.
Scammers often invest months and even years into building trusting relationships with their victims. They may ask for money to pay for a plane ticket, medical expenses or debts.
Amy Nofizger, director of the AARP’s Fraud Watch Network, told CNN she’s seen victims’ losses range from $7,800 to $900,000. In some cases, victims end up cashing out their retirement funds or life savings under the assumption they are honestly helping somebody they care for and who needs help.
Nofziger said that victims of scammers are simply trying to find a genuine connection with someone and that they are, “smart, educated, wordly people; they just fell in love.”
Like thousands of innocent consumers, Ellen Floren, a 68-year-old woman from Chicago, thought she met a fellow neighbor off Nextdoor, an online community hub. The scammer posed as a man living in her neighborhood and she said the two began exchanging messages that felt innocent.
“He couldn’t wait to meet me. He was just so enamored with me. We had really nice conversations and all kinds of things,” Floren told CNN.
Within four weeks, Floren began noticing red flags. The scammer asked for a gift card so he could watch movies for an upcoming international flight. Floren agreed, but then shortly after he asked again for more money, around $2,000 to replace work instruments he purported to have lost in a cab. It was at this point that Floren realized she was being scammed.
“He just kept coming up with all these excuses,” said Floren.
Once Floren realized the scammer’s intentions, she immediately posted about the fraud on Nextdoor and to her Facebook account. She was shocked to see how many women responded with similar experiences.
According to the FTC, gift cards and wire transfers are the most commonly used payment methods by online scammers, both of which can be difficult to track. The FTC admits it’s not easy pinning down scammers who many times are based internationally and use fake names and photos.
“Our data suggests that there’s room for improvement in fraud detection and prevention,” Fletcher told CNN.
For now, Fletcher and Nofziger of the AARP both emphasized that consumer education is the most effective method in combating online romance scams. Teaching people how to identify fake profiles by flagging what types of questions scammers usually ask, talking to someone you trust about the new digital love interest and trying a reverse-image search of the scammer’s profile pictures to detect if they’re associated with another name.
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