Beware of online romance scams in 2023

Nowadays it’s common for romance to blossom online, with almost one-third of US adults having used a dating website or app. Unfortunately for all the lonely hearts out there, there are also lots of scammers online looking for money rather than love.

Romance scams, which often take the form of catfishing, are online dating hoaxes that target unsuspecting singles. But there are steps you can take to protect yourself.

Man’s hands typing love messages on a smartphone
Is it true love or an online scam? Learn the signs of a romance scammer.

What is a romance scam?

Romance scammers usually create fake identities and profiles on social media platforms or dating apps, a practice known as “catfishing”. The goal is to start an online relationship and win the trust of the unsuspecting victim with the aim of swindling money from them. Unfortunately, this sort of cybercrime seems to pay, with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reporting a record 304 million US dollars lost to romance scams in 2020. A new report from 2022 shows us that the instance of romance scams has only worsened with the new report from the FTC showing a total of $1.3 billion to romance scams.

How romance scammers operate

A romance scammer will set up a profile on a dating or social media platform, and either use it to contact potential targets or, in some cases, wait to be contacted by other users on the site. Once they have connected with a likely victim, they start by exchanging messages on that platform. However, they soon suggest moving the relationship off the website onto a more private channel like email or messaging – sometimes even phone. They forge an emotional bond with their intended victim, showering them with charm, showing intense interest in them, and sending frequent romantic messages. To build trust, the scammer will usually have thought out an elaborate life story that they gradually share – a successful career, past failed relationships, and hobbies and interests. In this beginning phase, money is usually never mentioned.

Once the victim has formed a romantic attachment, the scammer will the scammer will slowly spring their trap, which usually takes the form of one the common romance scams listed below. They will usually keep up the façade of romance until the victim’s requests to meet become too urgent or they stop sending money – at which point they will abruptly cut off contact and disappear. In addition to the heartbreak, the victim is left much poorer – or even facing consequences for their involvement in illegal schemes.

Common romance scams

  • They need money due to a family emergency, severe illness, or business loss
  • They want to meet you, but they don’t have the money for a plane ticket, they ask you to buy it.
  • Help them out of a financial pickle (sudden bills or unexpected costs)
  • Ask you to accept items on their behalf e.g., computers, smartphones, or money (usually stolen goods and for laundering schemes making the victim an unwitting partner in crime)
  • They request the money via wire transfers, prepaid cards, or gift cards (never their actual bank account)

Romance scam in real life

Charlotte’s Story:
I was on Facebook and noticed a complete stranger sent me a friend request. Just as I am looking at the profile to see who it is, I get an instant message *bloop*. This mystery person wrote “Hi beautiful.” I was caught off guard, but the conversation continued, and I was pleasantly surprised with my new companion I met online, of all places. The relationship moved fast as we talked every second of every day it seemed like. He always knows how to make me smile and he just says the most thoughtful things that make me feel like he really cares. He lives one state away and we make plans to hopefully meet in two week.

We were supposed to meet at the restaurant at 7:00PM. I was so excited and nervous to meet him because I have never seen him in person. Around 6:45PM he sends me a message saying that he has been in a car accident and is in the hospital. I offer to come see him there and he insists he will be okay.

The next day he tells me that he was released from the hospital but now he has a bill that he cannot afford. He asks if I can lend him $3,000 until he gets paid at the end of the month. Wanting to help ease the burden of my boyfriend, I sent the money via wire transfer. He showered me with affection and a few days later, he told me he lost his job due to his injuries from the accident. I have now been supporting him and eagerly waiting until he is well enough for us to meet up, finally!

How to identify an online dating scam

Romance scammers start with a fake online profile. Some clues that a profile might not be real:
  • Their social media profile was created recently and the “friends” all come from different foreign countries.
  • The profile photo or other shared images seem staged and the people unusually attractive, more like models in a photo shoot.
  • They claim to have a job that keeps them far away or traveling often, like military service or working on an oil rig.
  • They claim a level of education or nationality that does not match their language ability, e.g. someone states they have a degree from a US university but displays poor English skills.
It can be difficult to spot a fake dating profile immediately. That’s why it’s important to do your homework. Search the internet thoroughly for signs that the person actually exists other than on social media sites. You can also perform a reverse image search of their profile picture to see if it has appeared elsewhere, or search for their name plus the term “romance scam” to see if they have been mentioned as a possible scammer on other forums.

But what if you already think you might be falling for someone you have only ever communicated with online? Try to ignore those butterflies in your stomach for a minute and ask yourself if you've noticed any of these red flags:

Warning signs you might be in a romance scam

  1. They use social media platforms to contact you. You never talk to them on a phone number or in text messages connected to a phone number.
  2. They always want to talk like they’re not doing anything all day. This is a telling sign that they are scamming you because scammers have a lot of time on their hands for some reason. OH, I know why, because their main job is scamming others.
  3. They are asking for money, subtly and directly. The case always presents itself that they need money or a for a special occasion as we outlined in the common romance scams.
  4. The math is not math-ing. Things they say or stories they tell you never add up to be logical or quite frankly– make sense. The persona they’re trying to get you to believe in doesn’t make sense or small things they say don’t add up with the other stuff they’ve told you about themselves.

How to outsmart a romance scammer

  • Request a current picture. My personal favorite it to ask them to take a photo with a specific object like an avocado, a spoon, or fork. This works because usually you will request something so specific it will be hard to fake, especially if they’re using someone else’s images.
  • Request to meet in person. If they’re fake, they will definitely try to avoid meeting you in person at all costs. This comes in the form of excuses, or they will set a date with you, then on the day or very hour of your appointment, they will suddenly have a tragic inconvenience come up and must cancel the date. In actuality, they never had the intention of meeting up, but they were able to keep you strung along.
  • Ask detailed questions. As they say, the devil lies in the details. Ask them about their childhood, their siblings, parents, and what they do for a living. Ask where they went to school and studied for university. Usually from these questions, some sort of inconsistency will come up. For example, they said they grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, but they’re telling you the grade school they went to and is all the way in New York City, New York and they don’t have a New York or Missouri accent. Hmmmm, strange.
  • Request to video chat. This is an obvious trick and almost always, the scammer will say their camera is broken, the internet is too slow, they don’t have time or even, that they’re too shy. From the excuses alone you will know they are indeed hiding something.
  • Ask for their phone number. They will likely give you a texting app number or another artificial phone number, but never their actual phone number. You can tell by calling it, but new phone apps make it hard to detect the real numbers from the fake ones. However, if you want to be a real detective, there are websites which allow you to enter in a phone number and check who it is registered to.

What can you do if you realize you have been scammed?

If you realize that you have been played by a romance scammer, you should break off all contact immediately. Consider reporting them to the authorities, like the FTC in the United States. You could also contact the FBI’s Internet Crime Complain Center to file a complaint. In addition, notify the website or app where they created their profile. Most importantly, if you believe you have given your back account details to a scammer, it is very important that you contact your financial institution immediately and halt all transactions.

Protect yourself from romance scams

To keep yourself from falling prey to an online dating scam, keep the following in mind:
  • Don’t get swept up in the romance. It is only human to want to find true love, but it’s also important to maintain a healthy degree of skepticism about an allegedly attractive, successful individual who wants to start a long-distance relationship with a stranger.
  • Be careful what you share publicly online. Scammers can use details that you post on social media to target you and forge a connection.
  • If your friends or family members express concern about your relationship, give them a fair hearing and try to honestly assess if their worries are valid.
  • NEVER, ever send money to someone you only know online or over the phone.
  • Never give out your bank account information to someone you met online. Even if the other person wants to use it to send you money, you may be getting involved in a money laundering scheme, which is a crime.
  • Before you share intimate photos or videos of yourself, keep in mind that they can be reposted or forwarded – and that scammers sometimes use compromising images to blackmail their targets.
We hope you found this article helpful – we look forward to your feedback below. And if you like, why not review us on TrustPilot?

This article first appeared on Nov. 28 2021 and was updated on July 6, 2023
Images: 1&1/Shutterstock

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