The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) said that Americans reported record high losses of $547 million to romance scams in 2021, up almost 80% compared to 2020 and over six times compared to losses reported in 2017.

Financial losses stemming from romance scams have skyrocketed during recent years, with a total of $1.3 billion lost over the past five years.

Reports show that romance scammers are masters of disguise. They create fake online profiles with attractive photos swiped from the web. Sometimes they even assume the identities of real people. They may study information people share online and then pretend to have common interests. And the details they share about themselves will always include built-in excuses for not meeting in person. For example, many reportedly claim to be serving overseas in the military or working on an offshore oil rig.

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In another common twist on the romance scam, people agree to help transfer money as a favor to their supposed sweetheart. The scammer often claims to need help getting their inheritance money or moving funds for an important business deal. Stories like this often set people up to become “money mules” – they may think they’re just helping, but they’re really laundering stolen funds. These stories are also used to trick people into sending their own money. People have reported paying all sorts of bogus fees to accept money that never turns up. Others say they deposited a check from their sweetie and sent some of the money as instructed, only to find out later that the check was fake – leaving them without the money they sent. Still, others report sending money based on promises – later proven to be false – that they would be repaid.

A growing trend in 2021 was scammers using romance as a hook to lure people into bogus investments, especially cryptocurrency. People are led to believe their new online companion is a successful investor who, before long, casually offers investment advice. These so-called investment opportunities often involve foreign exchange (forex) trading or cryptocurrency. And when people follow this investment “advice,” they wind up losing all the money they “invest.”

In fact, the largest reported losses to romance scams were paid in cryptocurrency: $139 million last year alone. That’s a remarkable growth in cryptocurrency payments to romance scammers: 2021 numbers are nearly five times those reported in 2020, and more than 25 times those reported in 2019. In 2021, the median individual reported loss using cryptocurrency was a staggering $9,770. While cryptocurrency losses were the most costly, it was not the most common payment method for romance scams. In 2021, more people reported paying romance scammers with gift cards than with any other payment method. In fact, about one in four people said they paid a romance scammer with a gift card, and they reported losing $36 million last year.

Reports about romance scams increased for every age group in 2021. The increase was most striking for people ages 18 to 29. For this age group, the number of reports increased more than tenfold from 2017 to 2021. But the reported median loss increased with age: people 70 and older reported the highest individual median losses at $9,000, compared to $750 for the 18 to 29 age group.

So how can you spot scammers if you’re looking for love online?

  • Nobody legit will ever ask you to help by sending cryptocurrency, giving the numbers on a gift card, or by wiring money. Anyone who does is a scammer.
  • Never send or forward money for someone you haven’t met in person, and don’t act on their investment advice. 
  • Talk to friends or family about a new love interest and pay attention if they’re concerned.
  • Try a reverse-image search of profile pictures. If the details don’t match up, it’s a scam.
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