For three years, people have reported losing more money on romance scams than on any other fraud type identified in Sentinel, a fraud database.
In 2020, reported losses to romance scams reached a record $304 million, up about 50 percent from 2019.
For an individual, that meant a median dollar loss of $2,500. From 2016 to 2020, reported total dollar losses increased more than fourfold, and the number of reports nearly tripled.
Why did dollar losses spike in 2020?
One reason may be the pandemic limiting the ability to meet in person. Other than the pandemic, the share of people who have used an online dating site or app has been rising, according to the Federal Trade Commission. And romance scammers are taking advantage of this.
Scammers make up attractive online profiles to draw people in, often taking photos from the internet and using made up names. Some also assume the identities of real people.
Once they make online contact, they have a host of reasons not to meet in person.
The pandemic has made that easier and inspired new twists to their stories, with many people reporting that their so-called suitor claimed to be unable to travel because of the pandemic. Some scammers have even canceled first date due to a supposed positive covid-19 test.
While many people report losing money on romance scams that start on dating apps, even more say they were targeted on social media. These social media users aren’t always looking for love, and report that the scam often starts with an unexpected friend request or message.
Then, these scammers ask for money. They might say it’s for a phone card to keep chatting. Or they might claim it’s for a medical emergency, with covid-19 often woven into their tales.
The stories are endless, and can create a sense of urgency that pushes people to send money over and over again.
What many of the largest reported dollar losses have in common is that people believe their new partner has actually sent them a large sum of money. Scammers claim to have sent money for some reason, and then have a detailed story about why the money needs to be sent back to them or on to someone else.
People think they’re helping someone they care about, but they may actually be laundering stolen funds. Many reported that the money they received and forwarded on turned out to be stolen unemployment benefits.
In 2020, reports of gift cards being used to send money to romance scammers increased by nearly 70 percent. Gift cards, along with wire transfers, are the most frequently reported payment methods for romance scams.5
People said they mailed the gift cards or gave the card’s PIN number to the scammer. The median amount people sent romance scammers in 2020 using any method of payment was $2,500, more than 10 times the median loss across all other fraud types.
Reports of money lost on romance scams increased for every age group in 2020.
People ages 20 to 29 saw the largest increase, with the number of reports more than doubling since 2019. People ages 40 to 69 were once again the most likely to report losing money to romance scams. And people 70 and older reported the highest individual median losses at $9,475.
Here are some tips from the FTC to help you avoid scammers:
- Never send money or gifts to someone you haven’t met in person – even if they send you money first.
- Talk to someone you trust about your new love interest. It can be easy to miss things that don’t add up. Pay attention if your friends or family are concerned.
- Take it slowly. Ask questions and look for inconsistent answers.
- Try a reverse-image search of the profile pictures. If they’re associated with another name or with details that don’t match up, it’s a scam.
- Learn more at gov/romancescams.
Help stop scammers by reporting suspicious profiles or messages to the dating app or social media platform. In addition, let the FTC know at ReportFraud.ftc.gov.