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Guard your heart: Americans lost $143 million to romance scams in 2018, FTC says

Make your online dating experience safer with these tips

An officer with the Greenville Police Department in South Carolina provides some advice for avoiding becoming a victim.
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An officer with the Greenville Police Department in South Carolina provides some advice for avoiding becoming a victim.

The government is now able to quantify how much “lookin’ for love in all the wrong places” costs us as a nation.

This Valentine’s Day, remember that Americans reported losing $143 million in 2018, after getting involved in what they only later realized was a relationship scam, according to a new report from the Federal Trade Commission. And that’s just the year’s worth of reports.

The FTC’s Sentinel consumer reporting system received more than 21,000 reports of online romance scams last year, the report says. The $143 million lost make relationship scams the costliest form of consumer fraud cataloged by the government’s online reporting system.

What form does a “relationship scam” take?

“Romance scammers lure people with phony online profiles, often lifting photos from the web to create attractive and convincing personas,” the report says. “They might make up names or assume the identities of real people.”

And it’s not a problem confined just to dating apps and websites, either, the FTC says.

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Federal Trade Commission

“Reports indicate the scammers are active on dating apps, but also on social media sites that aren’t generally used for dating,” the report states. “For example, many people say the scam started with a Facebook message.”

Once an initial friendly relationship has been established, the fraud eventually leads to a request for hundreds or even thousands of dollars, “often for a medical emergency, or some other misfortune,” the FTC warns. The requester typically has excuses for why he or she can’t meet in public with the new online flame they’re latching onto, like serving in the military and being stationed overseas.

They typically ask victims to add money to a gift card, or to wire money to them. The median reported loss was $2,600.

This type of fraud is on a steep rise since 2015, too, according to FTC data. In 2015, the FTC’s Sentinel system received about 5,000 consumer fraud complaints, with reported losses around $33 million. Since then, both reports and reported losses have increased more than fourfold.

Have you been scammed?

The FTC report says that people aged 40-69 reported being victimized by online relationship fraud at the highest rates, and offered the following tips to anyone who fears they may be a victim of an online relationship scam:

  • “Never send money or gifts to a sweetheart you haven’t met in person.

  • Talk to someone you trust about this new love interest. In the excitement about what feels like a new relationship, we can be blinded to things that don’t add up. Pay attention if your friends or family are concerned.

  • Take it slowly. Ask questions and look for inconsistent answers. Try a reverse-image search of the profile pictures. If they’re associated with another name or with details that don’t match up, it’s a scam.

  • Learn more at ftc.gov/imposters.”

In a separate study, the AARP reported that 4 percent of adult survey respondents admitted to falling victim to a relationship scam in the past.

The FTC recommends reporting relationship fraud to the individual social media or dating site first, then visiting the FTC’s Sentinel reporting site at FTC.gov/complaint.

Matt is an award-winning real time reporter and a University of Texas at Austin graduate who’s been based at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram since 2011. His regional focus is Texas, and that makes sense. He’s only lived there his whole life.
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