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The Short Version: Romance scams are on the rise, and they can come for anyone. CEO of Identity Theft Resource Center, Eva Velasquez, and Scam Survivors team members Wayne and Firefly spoke with us about the trend. These experts shared ways to spot a scam, how to protect yourself from a fraudster, and what to do if you find yourself victimized by a scam.
One day in college, I received a check in the mail for several thousand dollars. It was made out to me, but I didn’t recognize the company listed as the source.
I felt a little bit nauseous from the excitement of randomly receiving a check for that much money and the awareness that something was not quite right about the situation. I knew that there was something wrong with this check. I called my mom for her advice.
She called the bank that the routing number led to and asked them to look up the check number. It didn’t exist. “This is definitely fraud,” she told me. “Are you sure nothing suspicious happened lately? Have you been communicating with anyone online?”
Then, I remembered. I had sold something online through a fashion resale app to someone who claimed they needed to pay the $12 through the mail. Sure enough, I got an email from them hours later asking me to cash the check I had received and make a bank transfer to return the difference back to them.
In reality, the check would have bounced after I sent them thousands of dollars — what is known as an “overpayment scam.” I did not attempt to cash the check and instead blocked their contact. But if I hadn’t taken a pause to double-check, who knows what I would have done?
I told my story to Eva Velasquez, CEO of the Identity Theft Resource Center, who was familiar with this type of scam, one of many that plague the digital space every day. She emphasized the importance of double-checking when things don’t feel right online. “When you’re in the moment, it’s just much harder to discern,” she said. “And that’s why it’s so important to think through it before you further engage.”
The Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC) is a powerhouse in the fight against identity theft. They focus on preventing identity theft, recovering identity, and protecting businesses. “We want to reduce the impact and risk of identity crimes,” Eva said. “And while we help all stakeholders, our primary focus is obviously victims and consumers. But we try to educate businesses and the government about the impact and the importance of addressing these issues, providing resources, and just making sure that this victim population is taken care of and has access to services.”
Recently, the digital space has seen a significant uptick in digital fraud across the board but specifically in romance scams. These scams can result in major financial losses, identity theft, and significant emotional turmoil. While anyone can fall victim to romance scams, understanding how they work and how to protect yourself can help you stay safe from them online and in the dating scene.
Romance scams can take on many different forms, but at a base level, they involve scammers building a romantic relationship with a victim online, then taking advantage of that relationship to gain access to assets without the intention of following through on a real relationship. “Once they build a relationship, and they have earned the trust of these folks, they start asking for money,” Eva said. “They often ask for access to financial accounts.” In Eva’s opinion, the trust and bond that they forge through correspondence make it harder for victims to see through the facade. No one wants to assume their new partner has ill intent.
Wayne, one of the creators of Scam Survivors, a site dedicated to educating the public about scams and helping victims move on after they’ve experienced a scam, explained how many scammers are able to charm their victims so effectively. “They will quite often send a personality questionnaire to their victim and use that to give you your perfect person,” Wayne said. “So they can promise them absolutely anything, knowing they’re never ever going to have to give them that, and then once they’ve got that person hooked, they will start coming up with reasons for needing money.”
Wayne and his co-worker at Scam Survivors, Firefly, also shared how different types of romance scams are often specific to different parts of the world. “You can tell where the scammer is by the things that they asked for money for,” Wayne said. “For example, a Russian romance scammer would ask for money to come and visit you. Whereas the Ukrainian romance scammer would ask for money for a translator because they’ve been using that to write to you, but they don’t actually speak English.”
Nigerian romance scams — which, according to Wayne and Firefly, get very creative — have received particular attention as of late. Eva weighed in on this groundbreaking story from NBC covering a reformed scam artist from Nigeria who has had a change of heart. Still, romance scams that come out of Nigeria and other parts of West Africa remain common.
Eva, Wayne, and Firefly all emphasized the same point: online scams can happen to anyone. “It’s not just something that happens to seniors, young people, or college students; this is proliferating across the board,” Eva said. “And every person, regardless of age, socioeconomic status, education level, every person is vulnerable to these scams under the right set of circumstances. And that acknowledgment when you start down this journey, I think, is really important.”
No matter your age, you can fall victim to a scam online if a scammer gets you to make a decision based on emotions instead of logic. “It’s very easy for an outside third party to look at a set of circumstances and get very judgmental,” Eva told us. “The difference is your emotional brain — which is triggered by things like a sense of urgency, a sense of belonging — is just terrible at making logical decisions.”
That’s why it’s so important to trust your gut and talk to a third party — whether it’s a friend, your mother, or an organization like Scam Survivors and ITRC — before making a risky decision online.
Eva also noted that these relationship scams are not always romantic in nature. People who have no interest in finding a partner online can fall victim, too. She pointed to friendship scams and other sorts of relationship-based scams that are on the rise. ” Even when the individual is not really interested in the scammer as a romantic partner, they can still be a target,” Eva said. “If they feel like they can build a relationship with you, even if it’s just a friendship based on, again, shared interests, maybe a shared cultural heritage, lived experience, they’ll try to use that.”
There are some clear-cut ways to spot a romance scam and some ways that are more niche, but it’s important to educate yourself as much as possible.
“Anyone you meet online who is asking for money, no matter the reason — it’s a scam,” Firefly said. “Anyone asking you to reconfirm your details or to send your details, your address, your phone number, your workplace details, copies of your identity documents — it’s a scam. Anybody offering you something that you need to pay a fee in advance for — it’s a scam.”
She also suggested conducting a reverse image search for pictures sent to you by a new potential partner online or even searching their messages to see if they come up elsewhere. If you feel like the person you’re talking to is a scammer, there’s a good chance that they are.
If you do fall for a romance scam, both ITRC and Scam Survivors emphasize that you shouldn’t feel ashamed. It can happen to anyone, so the most important thing is to get help recovering what you can, and spreading the word about that particular scam or experience to law enforcement and fraud prevention sites that can help protect others.
“Admitting your own vulnerability when you engage online is going to keep you on a heightened sense of alert,” Eva said. “And that’s a good thing.”