After a rough divorce the year before, she was thrilled to meet a man who shared her religion, interests, and love of children and animals. Then one day Eric called in a panic, saying his passport had been stolen. Candace wired him the small sum without hesitation — but when he contacted her a few weeks later saying he needed a much bigger sum to pay legal bills, she realized she was being scammed. Her whole relationship with Eric was a scheme to get money out of her.
This story is fictional, but the scenario is all too real. More than 14, Americans fell victim to this kind of scam in , up from fewer than 6, in And that number may only represent a fraction of the real total. Some catfishers use these fake identities to annoy or harass others online, or just to flirt without commitment. They lure their victims into an online relationship and use it to get money out of them — sometimes thousands of dollars.
How Romance Scammers Operate Romance scammers work by setting up fake profiles on dating sites and social media. They usually claim to have jobs that keep them outside the country for long periods of time, such as working on an oil rig, serving in the military, or working for a nonprofit. Next, they seek out victims — usually people who are lonely and vulnerable — and work to build up relationships with them.
They can spend months winning over their victims with regular conversations, long e-mails, poetry, gifts, and declarations of love — everything except face-to-face meetings.
Often, they rely on pre-written scripts that tell them exactly what to say at what point in the relationship. Next, the scammers start asking for money. Once they know the victim is hooked, they pretend to go through some kind of crisis that requires a large amount of cash to fix, such as a robbery, a medical or legal problem, a frozen bank account, or a business opportunity.
Often, they work with accomplices who pose as friends, doctors, lawyers, or other people who can back up their story. The victims are often happy to pay because they think helping out their love interest will make it easier for them to finally meet in person.
Instead, the scammer continues to string the victim along with more requests for money, sometimes keeping up the fraud for years. When the victim finally wises up — or runs out of money — the scammer disappears. In a few cases, the scam continues even after the victim catches on. Then they use their emotional hold over the victim to lure them into helping them with their crimes — sometimes even turning them into accomplices in other scams.
Profile of a Scammer Many romance scammers operate outside the United States. According to HuffPost, most of them are located in Ghana and Nigeria, but an increasing number originate in communities of West African immigrants in Canada, Malaysia, and Britain.
To make this kind of money, romance scammers often have multiple victims on the hook at once. HuffPost cites a case in which a single person was working 25 online romance scams at once, posing as both men and women.
Some of the most successful scammers have extracted tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars from a single victim. Profile of a Victim Romance scams can affect anyone. Barb Sluppik, who runs the watchdog site RomanceScams. However, some people are more likely to be targeted than others. Most victims of romance scams are women. Residents of Developed Nations. Scammers find their victims all over the world. However, they tend to target people living in developed nations, who are more likely to have money to spare.
However, in the area of relationships, they tend to be impulsive and open to persuasion from others. Examples include job loss, divorce, the death of a loved one, or a medical crisis in the family.
During this experience, they lived in denial, finding ways to excuse the abusive behavior or even blocking out all memory of it. Thus, they were more likely to turn a blind eye to the warning signs of a romance scam, coming up with excuses for the suspicious behavior like they had done in the past.
Victims of Previous Scams. Romance scammers also like to prey on people who have been victimized before. You might think that being scammed once would make people more cautious in the future, but often, their response is just the opposite. The University of Exeter study found that people who have fallen for one scam are consistently more likely to show interest in another. Scammers can also cause a lot of trouble for the people — usually men — whose images they steal to create their fake identities.
Also, the image of a strong soldier protecting his country tends to appeal to women seeking love online. HuffPost reports that General John F. Campbell had his image used in more than fake profiles in the space of six months after assuming control of the U. Jones, had not only his image but his entire identity stolen by scammers. Jones now runs an entire Facebook group dedicated to exposing scammers who have used his image to defraud women.
However, because so many of these crimes go unreported, this is probably only a fraction of the real total. These devastating financial losses are far from the only dangers romance scams pose to their victims. Victims of romance scams often end up abetting the scammers in other crimes.
Scammers may use their victims to launder stolen money, transport drugs or stolen goods, or even help them scam others. In other cases, the victims are so emotionally dependent on the scammers that they willingly enter into a life of crime to help them.
In other cases, they simply demand money from the victims in exchange for a promise to keep the photos private. Sunmola extracted money from at least two of his victims by blackmail and then posted their nude photos online anyway. Scammers living overseas sometimes lure their victims out of the country, where they can face all kinds of dangers. Some, like Armstrong, end up in foreign prisons, while others are kidnapped and held for ransom. Some even end up dead.
A study in Criminology and Criminal Justice found that for most victims, the loss of a relationship they thought was genuine is more devastating than the financial loss. Many victims described the experience as traumatic, and most reported that friends and family showed little understanding or support. HuffPost reports that some romance scam victims have attempted or committed suicide.
Becoming a Repeat Target. They then sell those lists to other criminals, exposing their victims to additional scams. However, for people who know what to look for, there are often red flags that reveal something is amiss.
Here are some warning signs that your online flame could be a scammer: Scammers go out of their way to make themselves appealing to their victims.
Their Profiles Are Scanty. Building a consistent fake identity from scratch is tricky, so many scammers keep their online profiles to a bare minimum. The few friends they have are usually accomplices in the con — people you might hear from later when your new love starts asking for money.
Their English Is Limited. Because most romance scammers operate in foreign countries, their English skills are often limited. Romance scammers try to move the online romance forward as fast as possible. They declare their love for the victim quickly, sometimes after just one or two conversations. They Move the Conversation to Another Site. Although scammers typically meet their victims through dating sites or social media, they prefer not to pursue the relationship through these channels.
Instead, they persuade their victims to communicate through e-mail or messaging apps. This makes it easier for them to keep their real identity hidden and also allows them to organize all their communications with their various victims. They usually claim to be living outside the country — traveling, working abroad, or stationed overseas as part of the military.
They Forget Important Details. Because online romance scammers often have multiple victims on the hook at once, they sometimes have trouble keeping all their stories straight. Scammers often ask their victims for intimate photos or videos, which they later use as blackmail. The biggest, brightest red flag of all is that your online lover keeps asking you for money to deal with one emergency or another. They have health problems, emergency travel expenses, losses from a robbery or other crime, family emergencies, and so on.
Protect Yourself From Online Romance Scams None of this means that finding love online is impossible; however, it pays to be careful.
How to Avoid Being Scammed Here are a few tips experts recommend to protect yourself when meeting people online: Check Out Their Story.
When you first meet someone, do a little digging to see if they are who they claim to be. Run their name through a search engine and see what pops up. Do an Image Search. Ask lots of questions and learn as much as you can about them. Meet in Real Life. Lay out the whole situation to a family member or friend and ask whether it seems suspicious to them. Those images you thought were private could be used to blackmail you later. However, be aware that if the person on the other end really is a scammer using a false name, enforcing the agreement could be difficult or even impossible.
Steve Jones, the New York man who had his image stolen for hundreds of fraudulent profiles, has posted a public service announcement on YouTube about how to protect yourself from this form of identity theft. Check out their profiles to see how many friends they have, and especially how many friends they have in common with you.
Another way to protect yourself is to run periodic reverse-image searches for your own photos. Search online to find instructions for doing this on different dating and social media sites. However, there are a few things you can do to improve the odds of recovering your cash, catching the criminal, and protecting yourself in the future: