The need to give and receive love is unfortunately an extremely easy human weakness to exploit. Maybe you knew this, but if you didn’t, the Federal Trade Commission will be happy to point it out to you, right now, just before Valentine’s Day.
In a “Data Spotlight” published Tuesday, February 12, the FTC shared that romance-related scams are the most commonly reported type of consumer fraud in the United States, and growing every year. The FTC received reports of 21,000 romance scams in 2018, up from 8,500 in 2015. The financial consequences of these scams are also getting bigger, with reported losses quadrupling from $33 million in 2015 to $143 million in 2018. The “romance scam” category is only loosely defined, but the report focuses on situations in which one person pretends to be romantically interested in another in order to extract money from them.
The report explains the basics of catfishing — “Scammers lure people with phony online profiles, often lifting photos from the web to create attractive and convincing personas” — and says that it’s common not just on dating apps, but on social media sites that aren’t explicitly for dating. “For example, many people say the scam started with a Facebook message.”
According to the FTC, these scammers typically ask for money to be wired to them, or transferred via gift card. They come up with urgent-sounding reasons — like health problems or “some other misfortune” — or pretend to need the money in order to travel to meet up in person. “Scammers can reap large rewards for time spent courting their targets,” the report states ominously, before revealing that the median reported financial loss across age groups was $2,600, about seven times higher than the median loss for other types of fraud. For victims over 70, that number was $10,000.
This isn’t the first time the FTC has weighed in on online dating scams. Last May, the agency responded to frequent Freedom of Information Acts requests on the topic by releasing thousands of consumer complaints pertaining to Match.com, Tinder, PlentyofFish, Bumble, Grindr, and OkCupid, among others. These complaints were both about catfishing and allegedly deceptive business practices carried out by the sites themselves (e.g. paid subscriptions that were confusing and difficult to cancel). Match.com had the most complaints, which were sifted through by The Outline’s Drew Millard, who found one man that had sent $600,000 over the course of four months to a woman in Norway who said she wanted to marry him, as well as a woman who had sent $75,000 to a man who claimed he was a soldier stationed in Afghanistan.
“These kinds of romance scams are very targeted social engineering attacks,” cybersecurity expert Nathan Wenzler told MarketWatch. They’re “effectively ‘hacking’ the victim’s emotions, rather than trying to perform a technical assault.”
The dating advice in the report is equally grim. The FTC — not an entity I had anticipated offering an opinion on my dating life — suggests that singles should never send money or gifts to “a sweetheart” they haven’t met in person, and that they should discuss all new love interests with friends or family so an impartial third party can analyze whether the person seems real. Also: reverse-image search the profile pictures of people you meet online to see if they’re associated with other people online, routinely quiz new love interests about the details of their lives to make sure everything adds up, and “learn more at ftc.gov/imposters.”
Still, remember that woman who fell for a catfishing scam and then later, by pure chance, ended up finding the person whose photos were stolen to catfish her with and they fell in love for real? That was nice.