This Valentine’s Day, Don’t Get Bewitched by a Romance Scam

~ By Gerald Rome, Colorado Securities Commissioner ~

We read about them all the time, see the commercials on TV, and hear the jokes: Match, eHarmony, the list of 21st Century dating websites and matching services are ever growing. While much of the advertising surrounding these sites is targeted toward young adults, the less-talked-about users of online dating sites are people older than their fifties who are pursuing new romances later in life. When it comes to finding someone with whom you can bond, these services are convenient and much less stigmatized than they were even five years ago. However, there’s a dark side to the online dating trend of which people who are looking for love later in life need to be aware.

Gerald Rome, Colorado Securities Commissioner

Gerald Rome, Securities Commissioner

Romance scams take place when a con artist makes contact with a person on a dating site or social media platform, and successfully builds a relationship with that person. These con artists are extremely charming, and know just what to say to build feelings of intimacy, care, and concern. After a relationship is built (but one that has been strictly electronic and over the phone), the con artist will claim that a financial emergency of some sort has arisen, and will ask the victim for money. Due to the dedication the victim feels to their online companion, the money is sent, and generally additional requests are made until the victim either becomes aware of the scam, or runs out of money.

But these scams are on the rise, with the FBI reporting that in 2016 they received almost 15,000 reports of such scams, amounting to over $230 million lost. That is real money.

Upon first glance, most people would think they would never fall for such an obvious con. But beware of the tactic that those who use the romance scam: emotional manipulation. Criminals who operate such scams know that people who are under what is sometimes termed a “spell” become incapable of utilizing rational thought when it comes to their finances. By pressing emotional buttons such as love and desire, or fear and panic, scammers know that common sense will be overruled. And don’t be fooled, even the smartest person can be persuaded.

So, if you or someone you know is testing the waters of online dating, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Is this person too good to be true? As much as we all want to believe the perfect mate exists, we have to remember that if a person’s looks, lifestyle, and communications sound too much like a fairy tale, they probably aren’t real.
  • How often does money come up in conversation? Some dating profiles ask for financial status so that potential mates can assess whether they are a fit financially. Use caution when giving out this information, and be even more wary if someone you are visiting with online is questioning you about your financial situation, or regularly bringing up money in seemingly casual conversation.
  • Has your conversation moved “offline”? Many scammers will initially ensnare a victim using a fake profile on a dating site. However, since these sites are constantly on the lookout for sketchy accounts they will often ask the victim to share personal email addresses and phone numbers so that the conversation can continue away from the dating platform.
  • Finally, remember that if anyone whom you don’t know well, haven’t met face to face, or who hasn’t met your own friends and family asks you for money (particularly by wire), that is a huge red flag. If this happens to you, cut off all contact, save all communications, and contact a regulator or law enforcement agency immediately. Online dating is a brave new world that can lead many to lifelong happiness, but just remember not to fall under that emotional “spell” in the process!