Also called “romance scams” or “dating scams,” so-called “lonely hearts scams” are centuries old. In this scam, con artists begin a relationship with victims in order to access their money. Most typically, the perpetrator invents a name, personality and story and, over time, wins the confidence and affection of a victim, who is convinced they have met their “true love.”
In the old days, the scam would usually start in person, or through written correspondence, perhaps beginning in a newspaper personal ad (the “lonely hearts ads” that gave the scam its name). But today, these con artists have a new array of high-tech tools available for finding victims and setting the hook, such as dating sites, chat rooms and social media. The Better Business Bureau (BBB) estimates that each year, over a million people in the U.S. fall for these types of scams, with losses nearing $1 billion.
Many of the people defrauded are older adults. Seniors might be lonely—perhaps they have lost a spouse, or have little social life. They may have a sizeable nest egg saved up. And if they are isolated from family and friends, there is no one to be suspicious of the red flags and help them avoid being taken.
The FBI describes it like this: “You’re contacted online by someone who appears interested in you. He or she may have a profile you can read or a picture that is e-mailed to you. For weeks, even months, you may chat back and forth with one another, forming a connection. You may even be sent flowers or other gifts. But ultimately, it’s going to happen—your new-found ‘friend’ is going to ask you for money.”
And your “friend” most likely doesn’t exist. These criminals grab a photo off someone else’s Facebook page, learn about you through your social media account or dating profile, and create a persona that would appeal to you. The AARP estimates that up to 25% of profiles on dating websites may be created by scammers!
Protect yourself and older loved ones by raising awareness.
What are the signs of a lonely hearts scam? According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the FBI, these are red flags to look out for:
A person who professes their love quickly, even if they haven’t met you.
A person you meet on a dating site who immediately asks to take the conversation to personal email, text or phone.
The person’s online profile disappears a few days after they meet you.
Their photo looks like a glamour shot from a magazine.
The person claims to be an American traveling abroad or in the military.
You are asked to wire money or gift cards to pay for an “emergency,” or for the person to travel to meet you.
The person tries to alienate you from your family.
In some cases, perpetrators induce victims to open a new bank account, through which the crook wires stolen money out of the country. Some scammers blackmail victims, threatening to post their private correspondence. There have been cases of kidnapping and even murder when the victim and con artist meet in person.
According to the Better Business Bureau, financial loss isn’t the only harm caused by these crooks. A senior may suffer a great deal of emotional pain when they realize that their “soulmate,” a person they trusted and had affection for, maybe planned a future with, was a criminal victimizing them.
What can you do if you suspect you have been targeted?
The FTC says that if you suspect you’ve been conned by a romance scam, stop communicating with the person immediately. Talk to someone you trust and describe what’s going on. Don’t let pride stand in the way of saving your money! You can help other people avoid the wiles of the crook by reporting them to the FTC right away. You will be asked a series of questions that can help the agency catch a crook. Your privacy will not be compromised; you only need to provide as much information as you’re comfortable sharing. Visit the reporting page here.