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Older people increasingly targeted by romance scams amid COVID pandemic, FTC says

Over the past 3 years, people have reported losing more money on romance scams than any other fraud reported to the agency. The median loss for those 70-plus: $9,475.

Romance scammers bilked Americans out of what’s estimated to be a record $304 million in 2020, up about 50% over the previous year, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
Romance scammers bilked Americans out of what’s estimated to be a record $304 million in 2020, up about 50% over the previous year, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
Getty Images

True love’s cost might be incalculable, but the cost of romance scams totaled at least $304 million in 2020.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, the Federal Trade Commission says, because many victims of romance scams are embarrassed to come forward.

The number of romance scams continues to rise. Over the past three years, people have reported losing more money on them than any other fraud reported to the FTC.

The incidence of these scams — typically run on dating apps and over social media — increased among all age groups last year, with losses estimated at $304 million, up about 50% from 2019, the FTC says, with older people particularly targeted.

Kate Kleinert, a widow in Pennsylvania, told the Senate Special Committee on Aging last month she got caught up in a romance scam that cost her about $39,000.

After getting a friend request on Facebook in August 2020, Kleinert began corresponding with the man on another app. “Tony” said he was in Iraq on a contract with the United Nations. After he asked, she sent gift cards to him and his children.

He said he planned to meet her in Philadelphia in December but didn’t show. Someone purporting to be Tony’s lawyer called, saying he needed $20,000 for Tony’s bail.

“The lawyer told me to do whatever I could — put a mortgage on my house, borrow it from someone in my family,” she testified. “I couldn’t do it.”

Eventually, “I was living off my credit cards, and he was getting what I took from Social Security and my pension,” she said.“It’s so devastating, and many people have been through this but not spoken about it.”

Romance scammers bilked adults 60 or older out of more than $139 million during 2020. That’s up 65% over 2019, according to a new FTC report.

Among scams the FTC tracks, romance scams made up the highest reported losses for those 60 to 79 years old. And those 70 and older reported the highest median losses: $9,475.80.

Opportunities for romance scammers have risen during the pandemic as older adults spent more time on social media.

“It doesn’t always mean they’re looking for love,” said Patti Poss, a senior attorney in the FTC’s consumer protection bureau. “It’s that they just report that the scammer starts with an unexpected friend request or a message.

“Scammers are very sophisticated. They know what they’re doing, to be able to tell these stories, develop a relationship and get people’s money. You may not think you’re sending something to a stranger because it is somebody that you think you know at that point.”

Romance scammers: How to spot them

  • Romance scammers typically create fake profiles on dating sites and apps such as Ashley Madison, Grindr, Match and Tinder. They also target users on Instagram and Facebook, the FTC says.
  • Be suspicious if your online paramour claims to live outside the United States and is in the military or working on an oil rig or is a doctor with an international organization.
  • A scammer will want to connect with you off the dating site, maybe by email, phone or text, but not necessarily in person.
  • To build trust, they might connect online several times a day — and then ask for money, often for an emergency and to be sent via Western Union or MoneyGram.

Victims say scammers often uses the pandemic to explain requests for money or their inability to meet in person, the FTC says. Older adults reported losses of $10.5 million on romance scams related to COVID-19.

FTC tips on dealing with romance scammers

  • Stop talking. If you think you might be dealing with a romance scammer, halt communications immediately.
  • Don’t give out personal information. Don’t discuss your financial status with anyone you don’t know — in person — and trust. Don’t give anyone banking information, Social Security number, copies of your ID or passport or other sensitive data.
  • Money changes everything. Never send money to or trust investments suggested by someone you know only online.
  • Ask a friend or family member. Talk through the situation with people you know and trust — and listen to them.
  • Do some homework. Use Google or another search engine to see whether other people have reported such scammers. For instance, type in “oil rig scammer.” You can also use the person’s photo on Google Image. Select search by image — click the little camera icon — and upload the person’s photo. If it appears under several names, the person is likely a scammer.
  • Report them. Report scammers to the FTC at ReportFraud.ftc.gov. Also, notify the website or app on which you connected with the scammer.
  • Demand your money back. If you paid a scammer with a gift card, ask the card issuer for a refund.

Read more at USA Today.