According to the FBI, romance scams result in the highest amount of financial losses to victims when compared to other internet crimes. In 2018, Washingtonians were conned out of more than $92,000 while participating in online dating.
Stories like this rarely end well.
The ideal partner turns out to be a sophisticated scam artist, and a love-struck single is left not only broken-hearted — but broke.
Being scammed by a romantic interest met online is now the most common type of consumer fraud in the United States, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). In 2018, nearly 40 D.C. residents reported falling for online dating scams, for a combined loss of more than $92,000. And the criminal acts go beyond city and state borders, involving networks of accomplices overseas.
"These victims are invested in that relationship and they're emotional when that person does ask for money," says Kevin Luebke, a supervisory special agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). "Usually they're told that something sudden happened where [the offender] needs money now and that [victim] doesn't have time to reason or ask friends."
'I Fell For It Hook, Line And Sinker'
Like many victims of online scams, Ann has kept her story private for the past three years, overwhelmed by feelings of shame. The vibrant 72-year-old from Reston was once a homeowner making good money. Today, she's temporarily living rent-free with a friend who took her in. We're referring to Ann only by her middle name because she fears retribution otherwise.
"Nobody likes to admit they did something that stupid," Ann says of the scheme that cost her $180,000 between 2015 and 2017.
After separating from her husband who was addicted to drugs, Ann went online and started dating. That's where she met Tony, a 60-something Italian man who, like Ann, was single later in life. Tony told Ann that his wife and daughter died in a car accident, that he moved to London for business and that he was living in a hotel. The two connected, and Tony spent eight months wooing Ann with flower deliveries, poetry and compliments.
Then his luck changed.
"He said he had lost his wallet and had no way of paying the phone bill," Ann says. "So, I would send $1,500 dollars a week. Sometimes I sent $3,000."
Additional financial problems sprang up at random. And Ann says Tony continued to ask her for money, often appealing to her Christian faith to build sympathy — he sometimes ended phone conversations claiming to be late for Bible study classes.
"He actually convinced me to sell my condo. And I sent $50,000 twice," Ann says.
Then came the news that Tony was going to move to the U.S. so he could be with Ann. What's more, he could finally pay her back ... and then some.
Tony asked Ann to fly to New York to meet a woman who would give her a suitcase holding millions of dollars in cash. Ann just needed to give the woman $10,000.
That stranger, according to Luebke at the FBI, was working as a "money mule" — someone who collects a payment but never gives the riches that payment is supposed to unlock.
Ann didn't get the $11 million she was promised. She did, however, hand over the $10,000.
Romance Scams: A Secret Operation
In 2018, the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center investigated claims from nearly 18,500 romance fraud victims across the country, who said they'd lost a total of $362,500,761.
People ages 40 to 69 report losing money to romance scams at the highest rates — more than twice the rate of people in their 20s. At the same time, people 70 and over report the highest individual median losses — around $10,000.
Special Agent Luebke says though the perpetrators often live in foreign countries, they arrange it so that the bulk of the money is wired through what appear to be U.S. banks. The victim is often asked to send money using gift cards and reload cards. The cards let the recipients get quick cash, the transactions are largely irreversible and they can remain anonymous.
Scammers offer the mule a share in a large sum of money or a payment on the condition the mule helps them to transfer money out of the country. The woman who met Ann years ago in the New York hotel room was arrested, but Ann says she's since been released.
How To Spot A Romance Scam In The Making
"Be an investigator, yourself," Luebke says.
When you meet a person online, "Look up their name and see what comes up. Does the story make any sense? Where are they located?" he advises.
Luebke says the internet crimes unit has been teaming up with AARP over the past few years to host "scam jams" in local communities. Law enforcement officials and experts in Prince William and Fairfax Counties hold regular sessions to teach people how to avoid bogus online schemes and prevent identity theft.
"Scammers often push to get their victims to communicate off dating websites in an effort to isolate them," says Strat Maloma of the AARP Fraud Watch Network in a video about romance scams published ahead of Valentine's Day last year.
Life After Getting Scammed
Ann made another trip to New York City, this time to help the FBI catch the woman who collected her money. Sweet-talking Tony, Ann says, remains at-large.
"The FBI says he's probably in Nigeria," Ann says. "We found out all the money I sent went to Nigeria and Indonesia."
She's spent the last year living with a friend who is helping her get back on her feet. But Ann says she craves the independent life she used to live. And she hasn't received a dime of the money she lost.
Still emotionally scarred by the ordeal, she remains optimistic that things will turn around for her soon.
"What the hell have I done?" Ann says. "And then reality sets in and you've just got to put your big pants on and move forward."
Ann hasn't quit dating. But her next date, she says, is going to involve meeting in person.
Bad Romance: Spotting A Dating Scam
It's easier than ever to find love online. But it's also easy to get scammed. Here's how the FBI says daters can avoid being ripped off.
- Research the person's photo and profile using online searches to see if the material has been used elsewhere
- Go slow and ask lots of questions
- Beware if the individual seems too perfect
- Beware if the individual attempts to isolate you from friends and family
- Beware if the individual promises to meet in person but then always comes up with an excuse why he or she can't. If you haven't met the person after a few months, for whatever reason, you have good reason to be suspicious.