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romance scam

Contributor(s): Ivy Wigmore

A romance scam is a fraudulent scheme in which a swindler pretends romantic interest in a target, establishes a relationship and then attempts to get money or sensitive information from the target under false pretenses. According to the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) victims of romance scams experienced personal losses of more than $230 million in 2016.

Romance scams work through social engineering rather than any kind of sophisticated technology. The scammer typically creates a profile on a dating or social networking website, exploiting information that potential targets have posted. As soon as the scammer has gained the trust of the victim, he or she will typically profess to have fallen in love, and soon after that, begin requesting money. The scammer may claim to have an emergency need for funds or may request money for airfare to visit the target. Among other possibilities, the scammer may request photos or personal information that could eventually be used to blackmail the victim and extort more money.

Law enforcement reports that many romance scams originate from West Africa, Russia/Ukraine and the Philippines. Scammers may work for sophisticated organizations with managerial structures just like a legitimate business, using call center software. Like other call center workers, employees are paid by the hour, work in shifts and follow scripts. Such scammers usually attempt to defraud multiple victims simultaneously, often communicating with their targets for significant periods of time over weeks, months or even years to maximize the likelihood of getting multiple payments from the target.

To avoid becoming the victim of a romance scam, the FBI recommends that Internet users learn how to use reverse image search to check and see if a photo has been used elsewhere, refuse to send money if requested and report suspected scammers to the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3).

FBI special agent Christine Beining talks about the dangers of romance scams.

See also: catfish, scam baiting

This was last updated in February 2017

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