Valentine's Day ripe for romance scams, warn past victim, FBI

Valentine's Day ripe for romance scams, warn past victim, FBI

With the year’s biggest day for romance looming and Americans’ use of dating sites and apps showing no signs of declining, people have to be aware that criminals might feign affection to scam would-be lovers, said an FBI agent and a woman who dodged such a fraudster.

The rise of dating websites and dating apps is well-documented. In February 2020, before the covid-19 pandemic drove people indoors and more online, Pew Research released a study suggesting that 30% of U.S. adults had used such services to look for love, and that percentage rose for 18- to 29-year-olds, hitting 48%.

As expected, the pandemic had its effect on online dating. In March 2020, Tinder recorded 3 billion swipes in one day, an all-time record, Fortune magazine reported. From March to May of that year, OkCupid reported a 700% increase in dates.

The surge in activity came as the number of online cons and romance scams was already on the rise, with the number of reported victims nationally doubling from 2015-20, said James Dawson, special agent in charge at the FBI’s Little Rock field office. In 2020, nearly 24,000 people reported falling victim to these scams, he said.

In Arkansas, 149 people reported falling victim to confidence or romance fraud in 2020, with losses of more than $1.8 million, according to statistics from the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center.

Although some scammers take more money than others, the losses can be staggering. In that same time period, the amount of money reported lost went from about $200 million to more than $600 million, Dawson said, and losses in 2021 are expected to top $1 billion.

On average, victims lose about $47,000, Dawson said, and investigations into the accounts used by these scammers reveal that they are frequently conning 100 or so people at once.

“It’s very lucrative for scammers,” Dawson said.

Typically, scammers approach people, appearing very affectionate, caring, trustworthy and most of all convincing, Dawson said. They may play their game for weeks or months, building trust with the target before ever asking for money.

“They’ll always have a viable story” for why they can’t appear on a video call, or can’t meet, or why they claim to be American but have thick accents, Dawson said.

Sometimes they won’t ask for money, but instead offer to have the victim hold onto large sums of money for them. Either way, their game is to steal a mark’s personal information.

“This is their line of work. They’re very good at it,” Dawson said.

For one Texas woman, some of these signs raised red flags, but she still felt jilted when she discovered that a man she had been chatting with for weeks was a fraudster.

Yvonne Harlan, 68, who lives near Houston, turned to Tinder to experiment with the dating scene while she was working from home during the pandemic.

Harlan has a grown son and recently became a grandmother, she said. She’s close to her family, but felt lonely during the pandemic and wondered if online dating would be right for her.

“I’m isolated, and I haven’t dated,” Harlan said. “I have a wonderful family, but I don’t have anyone to go to the movies with, anyone to go on dates with, anyone to travel with.”

On Tinder, she met a man who said his name was Robert Bruno. He claimed to be 57 and was attractive, Harlan said. He messaged her and immediately came off as fun and upbeat, Harlan said. Very quickly, he asked if he could text her off of the app, she said.

“I didn’t realize that was one of the red flags,” Harlan said.

He even offered to talk to her on the phone, which initially made Harlan feel a little more at ease. Bruno had a thick accent, she noticed, but also a quick explanation: he had immigrated from Italy years before. He also sometimes used strange spelling and grammar. She later learned it’s common for foreign scammers to use Google Translate and other apps.

He divulged that his wife had cheated on him with his friend and business partner, leading to a split.

“That’s part of their scam profile,” Harlan said, saying that she’s learned that these kind of tragic stories are common.

But he seemed genuine enough, and “everything kind of matched up,” Harlan said.

They started talking on the phone every night, sometimes late in the evening. At one point, when she asked if they couldn’t talk earlier in the day, he said he was in Turkey on a business trip and could only call at that time.

They made plans to meet in person, but he canceled suddenly, saying something had come up at work.

“Not meeting in person is kind of the biggest red flag,” Harlan said.

By that point, Harlan was suspicious, she said. She had heard of catfishing — people pretending to be someone they aren’t online — but didn’t know about the scams.

“If I’d known the words romance scam, I would have known what was happening,” Harlan said.

Eventually, Bruno started asking for her to hold onto money for him. One time, it was from his late father’s estate, once he offered to give her money to buy a house. Finally, she accepted, but when he asked for her personal information and bank information to make the transfer, she knew it was all wrong. She cut him off.

“They tell you they love you, they tell you you’re beautiful, they send you flowers,” Harlan said. “They have this whole reality they make, and it feels real. Somehow this man hooked me into this whole fiasco.”

Harlan didn’t lose any money, something she attributes to her profession — she’s a paralegal — and her relative degree of online literacy.

“Your grandmother, sitting at the computer being stalked by a criminal, she doesn’t know that,” Harlan said.

In the end, all Harlan was able to find out about the man who tried to con her was that the photos he used were stolen, after conducting a reverse image search, which uses a search engine like Google to show other places where an image has been posted online.

As it turns out, the photos the scammer used are of a man living in California, and he’s well aware that his photos are frequently stolen. In one Instagram post, he joked about being “regular catfish bait,” Harlan said.

“He’s got these old women writing to him who have fallen in love with him,” she laughed. “So I guess it’s just kind of a joke to him.”

Harlan reported her scammer to the FBI, but agents didn’t offer hope that catching the scammer was likely, she said.

Harlan thinks that the older generation is more susceptible to this kind of scam because Baby Boomers were raised to be trusting and think the best of people. They couldn’t even imagine a scam like this.

“And that sounds really hokey, but it’s true,” Harlan said.

Although older people, especially women, who may lack the online knowledge to see the warning signs are still a key target, younger people are not immune, warned David McClellan, founder of SocialCatfish, a company that tries to prevent these scams by offering tools to verify the identity of people online.

“Gen Z is being scammed faster than ever,” McClellan said. “They’re overly confident online, they’re overly influenced by people online. They don’t think these scams can happen to them.”

For younger people, social media apps like TikTok are rife with scams, McClellan said. In fact, social media sites are starting to rival dating sites and apps for the volume of scams.

McClellan stressed that victims of these scams aren’t dumb, they just feel a need to trust people who they seem to be clicking with online. But if nothing else, they should know that the best way to not get scammed is simply to refuse to send or receive money.

“If somebody came up to you on the street, told you they loved you, and then two weeks later asked you for money, you probably wouldn’t do it,” McClellan said. “And that shouldn’t be any different on the internet.”

Dawson, the FBI agent, concurred.

“Someone who cares about you is not going to be fleecing you,” he said.

Unfortunately, embarrassment can lead to underreporting of these crimes, McClellan said. He estimated that only one in three people reports these scams.

“These numbers are underinflated right now. We need to bring awareness to this,” McClellan said.

Dawson emphasized that a victim should report a scam as quickly as possible to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center website if the person hopes to recover any losses.

“On many occasions we’ve found people are unwilling to accept that they’ve been victimized, and that’s unfortunate,” Dawson said.

Prosecutions and arrests related to this crime are reasonably common, Dawson said, and the agency is able to get search warrants for accounts used by scammers and even seek jurisdiction to go after international criminals.

McClellan had a slightly less rosy view of the FBI’s effectiveness, even though he stressed that the agents are victims’ best bet.

In his experience, he said, most victims don’t receive much follow-up on their reports with the FBI, and scammers are often able to safely hide overseas out of reach of the FBI.

That’s why prevention is so important, McClellan said. His company offers people ways to look up phone numbers, email addresses and photos to see if there is evidence that the person isn’t who he claims to be.

Harlan has mostly moved on from her experience with the scammer, she said.

“I tried not to beat myself up about it.”

It did put her off online dating, though, especially Tinder. She’s more interested in spending time with her family than trying to match with someone her age online.

“I don’t want a sad grandpa,” she joked.


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