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Romance scams — what they are and how to avoid them

Younger woman in red dress holds takes hand of well dressed older man at dinner table.
(Image credit: Motortion Films/Shutterstock)

Even as the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic has ebbed and flowed over the past two years, romance scams have been consistently on the rise. 

In this form of online fraud, scammers lure in victims with fake profiles on dating apps (even the best dating apps) or social-media platforms. What starts out as innocent friendship quickly escalates into professions of love and a false sense of intimacy. 

From there, the crux of a romance scam becomes a request for money (opens in new tab). Under the cover of love, scammers say they urgently need funds for travel expenses, medical bills and various debts. 

They often ask for money in the form of gift cards or wire transfers, which are impossible to dispute or recover. Cryptocurrency is also a form (opens in new tab) of romance scam payment. 

The key to success for romance scams is the fact that you'll never meet your online love interest face-to-face. Scammers come up with all kinds of excuses for why they can't connect in person: they're working on an offshore oil rig, or they're deployed abroad for military service, or they're quarantining or maintaining social distance due to COVID-19.

Whereas the first couple of reasons given may raise suspicious eyebrows, the pandemic has given fraudsters more plausible excuses (opens in new tab) for keeping their relationships strictly online. 

The Federal Trade Commission received reports of $304 million in losses (opens in new tab) due to romance scams in 2020 — a 50% increase over the previous year — affecting victims of all ages. More than a third (opens in new tab) of those who lost money to this type of fraud in 2021 were targeted on Facebook or Instagram. 

"During the pandemic, people had more time to scroll social media and more reasons to feel lonely and crave companionship," said Linda Sherry, director of national priorities at Consumer Action (opens in new tab)

"In addition, online dating is mainstream and there are platforms for all walks of life, so it stands to reason more people are checking out online dating." 

How to spot online romance scams

Spotting and avoiding romance scams starts with a healthy dose of skepticism. There are a few red flags to look out for: 

  • The other person comes on really strong early on, using words like "love" and "soulmate" within hours or days of making contact. 
  • The person asks you to communicate by text or email instead of through the dating or social media platform where you first made contact. 
  • The person can never meet face-to-face (in person or virtually), and they either make a lot of excuses for not planning properly or cancel in-person meetings at the last minute. 
  • The person's communication includes a lot of typos or limited English proficiency. 
  • The person asks for money, sensitive photos of you, or financial information. 
  • The person tells you not to tell family and friends about your relationship. 

If any of these things occur, definitely keep your guard up, and try to find more information about the other person. Even if you reached out to other person first, they could still be a fraud. 

Spotting an online romance scam may seem obvious, but factors such as isolation, loneliness, naivete and wishful thinking can increase a person's vulnerability to falling victim. 

"Many people believe in their own ability to spot scams, but in many cases this confidence can be easily overwritten by our desire for rewards, which in turn triggers more neurological responses to seek out even more rewards," said Sherry. "We are unfortunately as humans rather 'confidently vulnerable.'"

One trick experts recommend for catching scammers is to do a reverse image search (opens in new tab) for the other person's dating or social-media profile picture. Fraudsters will often use someone else's photo (or a stock image) and personal details to build their persona, and a reverse image search can help you quickly discover whether the picture has been repurposed. 

Another way to confirm whether the other person is who they claim to be is to search online for their name and other personal details (opens in new tab) they may have shared. If you don't find any other presence online, or if the information doesn't seem to match other profiles with the same name, then the other person may be carrying out a scam. 

The FTC also suggests searching for scams related to specific jobs (opens in new tab) that fraudsters often claim to have that keep them out of the country and unable to meet you. Try searching for "oil rig scammer" or "U.S. Army scammer," for example. You may find stories that sound similar to yours. You can also Google the text of messages you've received to see if the scammer has used them before and been exposed. 

"In our view, romance scammers are rarely just one person," said Sherry. "They are teams of people who can stay in constant touch, leading hopeful victims to be flattered by the attention."

How to avoid becoming a victim of a romance scam

If you see any of the above warning signs, or simply feel that something about your new online relationship seems off, cut off contact immediately. While you may not be able to avoid encountering scammers on dating or social-media platforms, there are also ways to prevent the situation from getting out of hand. 

First, don't share personal details on dating apps, including your last name, where you work or information about your family. Put as few personal details as you can on social media. 

Scammers may try to use your personal information to emotionally manipulate you or steal your identity. Also avoid sending intimate photos that the other person could use to extort or blackmail you. 

Most importantly, never, ever send money to an online love interest that you don't know or haven't met in person, no matter how compelling or heartbreaking their story, or however badly they claim they want to see you. 

This includes funds in the form of bank deposits, wire transfers, gift cards and reloadable debit cards. You won't get your money back. (The same goes for scams in which phone callers pretend to be government officials.)

What to do if you're caught in a romance scam

Unfortunately, once you've sent money to a scammer, it's probably gone. The FTC still recommends telling your bank or credit card company about the scam so you can protect your accounts from further harm. If you sent a gift card, the company that issued the card may be able to refund you in some cases. 

You can — and should — report the scam to the dating or social-media site, the FTC (opens in new tab) and the FBI (opens in new tab), no matter how embarrassing it may seem. The AARP also has a consumer-reported fraud map (opens in new tab) and helpline. If you fear that the scammer has too much of your personal information, you may want to look into one of the best identity theft protection services.

Reporting a romance scam won't undo the damage done, but it may save others from falling victim to the same fraudster. Try to collect as much information as you can, including the scammer's email address, IP address and full email message header (opens in new tab), for the report. 

"All victims, old or young, are often too embarrassed to tell their stories, which limits information that could help others avoid scams," Sherry said.

Emily Long is a Utah-based freelance writer who covers consumer technology, privacy and personal finance for Tom's Guide. She has been reporting and writing for nearly 10 years, and her work has appeared in Wirecutter, Lifehacker, NBC BETTER and CN Traveler, among others. When she's not working, you can find her trail running, teaching and practicing yoga, or studying for grad school — all fueled by coffee, obviously.