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Romance Scams

By Ryan Kaiser, CFE, Assistant Vice President, Fraud Risk Officer, Canandaigua National Bank & Trust

A romance scheme occurs when a bad actor creates a fake online persona to gain a victim’s trust within the context of a potential romantic relationship. Fraudsters can masterfully leverage social media or dating websites to construct convincing, attractive, and intriguing profiles for targets. Once a target victim is acquired, the fraudster will lay the groundwork for next steps; they will seem authentic, credible, relatable, and attentive. Often the fraudster will claim to be from the United States but working elsewhere overseas, to provide a built-in reason as to why an in-person meet-up cannot be arranged. These fraudsters take advantage of lonely, vulnerable people by learning how to quickly establish trust and prey on human emotion.

After an online relationship has been formed and the groundwork has been laid, the fraudster will eventually ask for some form of financial assistance. The reasons for this request can vary seemingly innocent to completely absurd – ‘a family member is in the hospital and needs emergency surgery’ or ‘we need money to start planning our wedding.’ Already swept up in the scam, the target victim often sends funds without asking sufficient questions or conducting any due diligence. If successful, the fraudster will generate further stories or scenarios and find subsequent ways to swindle the target out of additional funds.

If these scenarios seem completely farfetched and highly unlikely to be successful, think again. According to the FTC, during 2022, nearly 70,000 people reported a romance scam, and losses totaled approximately $1.3B. This number is certainly understated, as many victims will never report the scam out of embarrassment or for fear that they may somehow be complicit in a crime. Read on to learn about the red flags for these schemes, as well as best practices to stay protected.

Romance Scheme Red Flags –

  1. An individual seems extremely interested in quickly forming a romantic relationship.
  2. An individual refuses to meet in person or conduct video chat. Repeated, elaborate excuses are made.
  3. A story or person sounds too good to be true.
  4. An individual claims to be from the United States but is currently living or working abroad – common claims include working on an oil rig or being stationed on a military base. 
  5. The person makes grandiose or contradictory statements or stories.
  6. An individual asks for financial assistance in the form of wiring funds, writing checks, depositing checks, withdrawing cash, opening accounts, making purchases, or shipping merchandise.

Best Practices –

  1. Exercise extreme caution with what information you share online on social media or dating websites.
  2. Do not trust an online stranger that you have never met; do not assume that they have your best interest in mind.
  3. Conduct a reverse image search if you are unsure if an image is truly unique. Fraudsters love to lift images from legitimate social media profiles and construct phony identities with them.
  4. Beware if an individual attempts to isolate you from friends, family, or insists on secrecy.
  5. Do not share financial information or account information with anyone.
  6. Never send money to someone you have not met in person and established a high level of trust with. This includes cash, gift cards, checks, money orders, wire transfers, P2P payments, or cryptocurrency.

If you feel you have become a victim of a romance scam, cease contact with the scammer immediately. Consider talking about the situation with a trusted friend or family member to obtain a second opinion. Notify your bank or financial services company, particularly if any financial transactions have been conducted related to the scheme. Report the scammer to the website where initial contact was made. Consider notifying law enforcement of your situation including your local precinct as well as federal authorities such as the FBI or FTC.