Cybercriminals have found a lucrative strategy for finding victims: romance scams. They create fake profiles on dating apps and social media sites, make as many connections as possible, and attempt to trick innocent people into giving away their hard-earned cash. Unfortunately, these con-artists are cunning and experienced; they know how to appear genuine and give people a false sense of security.
According to the Federal Trade Commission, victims have lost $1.3 billion due to romance scams in the past five years. This number reached an all-time high during the pandemic; in 2021 alone, $547 million was lost as a result of romance scams.
Luckily, you don't have to swear off social media and dating apps to avoid these scammers, just keep these helpful do's and don'ts in mind.
- Be cautious about trusting anyone you meet online. Until you meet someone in person and can verify their identity, you should be very careful about what information you give them. There are many ways to verify someone's identity – meeting in person, video chat, reverse image search using their photo, researching their name/basic information, etc. If you haven't taken the necessary steps to confirm someone's identity and you haven't met them face-to-face, you should exercise caution.
- Take note if the conversation moves to a new channel. One common trick scammers use to avoid being caught or tracked by law enforcement is by using new communication channels after their initial contact with a potential victim. If you met someone via a dating app and are now communicating via text message, it can be more difficult for authorities to track your conversation back to the original account.
- Ask questions to uncover inconsistencies and identify red flags. Though cybercriminals are typically very smart, they still make mistakes. If you are chatting with someone whose stories about their childhood or background contradict each other, or they can't keep basic facts like their job or family straight, you have good reason to doubt the authenticity of their account. Do not be afraid to ask questions if you notice inconsistencies or bring up small details again to see if their story remains the same each time.
- Give out your bank account information, debit card number, Online Banking credentials or social security number. There is never a legitimate reason to share your financial information with a person who isn't a member of your immediate family. A scammer may request your bank account number in order to send funds as a gift or ask for your social security number to name you as a beneficiary on a life insurance policy. If someone you have not met in person requests this information, you should cut off contact and report their profile immediately.
- Send money to (or receive money from) someone you have never met in person. Sending money to someone you only know online is always risky. A scam artist may feign a personal emergency and ask for money to help buy a plane ticket, or they may offer an exclusive "investment opportunity" where they ask for funds up front and promise to double or triple your investment. Regardless of the reason, it's never a good idea to send money to someone you do not know in real life. Some scammers will even offer to send you a written check and ask you to send them money via an instant transfer method. By the time the check has bounced and you realize you've been scammed, the money is already gone.
- Overshare personal information online. Cybercriminals will use anything and everything you post online to their advantage. In romance scams, it is common for the scammer to use personal information about their victims to build a false sense of connection. For example, they may pretend to like the same professional sports teams you cheer for on social media or claim to enjoy vacationing at the same places you do based off pictures in your dating profile. Before you post anything online, ask yourself if a scammer could use that information to obtain sensitive data.
- Let a list of mutual friends trick you into trusting someone you shouldn't. Many social media sites and dating apps will show a list of people that you and the person you're chatting with are both connected to. It's important to remember that many people don't limit who they accept friend or connection requests from, so it's possible that the "mutual friends" listed don't know the person you're chatting with, either.
If you think you may have given your information to someone as part of a romance scam, alert your financial institution immediately so they can freeze your accounts and debit and credit cards. You should also alert the credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion) so they can freeze your credit score. Cut off contact with the scammer as soon as possible, and if they stole money or used your information illegally, you should report them to the appropriate authorities, including the Federal Trade Commission at www.reportfraud.ftc.gov and the FBI at https://www.ic3.gov/.
Remember, if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. To keep your sensitive data safe, stay vigilant and be overly cautious about sharing your personal information on social media and dating apps.