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Romance scams cost Americans $143 million last year, FTC says

A pedestrian passes stuffed animals for sale ahead of Valentine's Day in Philadelphia on Feb. 13. (Matt Rourke/AP)

Love is a scam. No, really: Romance scams have skyrocketed in the past few years and are now the most common kind of consumer fraud -- and the most costly, according to a report released this week by the Federal Trade Commission.

These predatory schemes often unfold online, both on dating sites and social media, with the fraudster going to great lengths to connect with someone just to extract money from them. Scammers will make fake profiles and concoct elaborate backstories, or even impersonate real people to appear more convincing. Then they’ll try to cash in on their connection, using tall tales about medical emergencies or personal misfortune. But the damage extends far beyond financial loss.

“I am a smart woman with decades of successful working experience. I have made mistakes in my life but nothing like this,” wrote a 63-year-old victim of a romance scam who shared her story with AARP. “The ripple effects have been so devastating and I have to deal with them almost every day of my life.”

The FTC received 21,368 reports of romance scams in 2018, up from about 13,000 the previous year. Losses from romance scams have increased fourfold since 2015, and the really unlucky in love were swindled out of $143 million in 2018, according to the report.

Older people are more likely to be targeted in romance scams, and also report greater financial losses. Victims between the ages of 40 and 69 lose money at double the rate of younger ones. Elderly victims are generally the most vulnerable -- individual median losses for people older than 70 were $10,000. The median individual loss across all ages was $2,600.

Some scams stretch over months or even years, making the betrayals devastating emotionally as well as financially. Even after the hoaxes are exposed, victims must grapple with the loss of a relationship they thought was real and the shame of having been manipulated. The 63-year-old Los Angeles woman who told her story on the California AARP’s website (named only as Jane Doe to protect her identity) was scammed out of more than $1 million and was nearly driven to suicide as result.

A few years after her husband died of cancer, the woman had joined e-Harmony to try to start over. After a few months on the dating site, she met a man who claimed to a successful engineer living in Beverly Hills. In long emails, the man unfurled his tragic history. He claimed that he also had lost his spouse to cancer but said that she had cheated on him with his best friend before she got sick. He even faked an email from his “daughter,” who he said was studying at Cambridge University, describing how grateful she was that her father had found real love at last.

Weeks after they started messaging, the man made his first ploy for cash, claiming that his bank account had been frozen and asking the woman for $7,500 to buy equipment for his last big engineering job before retirement. She agreed to lend him the money, and that began an avalanche of requests for more, and excuses about why they couldn’t meet in person yet, such as illnesses and business trips that kept getting extended. His lies were detailed and seemed legitimate. He pledged himself to her totally. When she was laid off from her job, he promised that he would take care of her when he returned, and that she shouldn’t worry about money.

“Every day he would send notes professing his love for me and I would be waiting anxiously for his calls and emails. I was totally brainwashed by this person,” the woman wrote. “I was losing weight, not eating or sleeping because he would call at all hours of the day and night. I started to become a physical wreck.”

In less than three months of correspondence, the woman gave the scammer $1 million and drained her retirement savings. By the time she realized what was going on and reported her losses to the police, she understood that she probably would never get her money back. Crippled by shame, without money to pay her bills, she considered ending her life. Now she works part time, making $11.75 an hour, and lives with a roommate.

“My dreams of retiring and traveling have been smashed,” the woman wrote. “I am not the person I was.”

“The Internet makes this type of crime easy because you can pretend to be anybody you want to be. You can be anywhere in the world and victimize people," Christine Beining, a fraud investigator with the FBI, said in a warning about romance scams in 2017.

Although the thrill and fervor of a romantic entanglement can blind victims to warning signs, common red flags may be able to save people from heartbreak.

The FBI notes that many scammers quickly try to migrate conversations from dating sites or social media to go “offline.” They often try to isolate their victims, gaining personal information they can use to extort them.

To guard against scams, the FBI recommends taking it slow with online romances and asking a lot of questions. Search the person’s biographical information on social media or other dating platforms to see if it has been recycled. Above all else, the FBI maintains that no one should lend money to someone they haven’t met in real life.

If someone is concerned about a possible scam, the FBI recommends ceasing contact and reporting the issue to its Internet Crime Complaint Center.