The numbers of people being targeted by fake relationship-seekers has surged during the pandemic.
Romance scams are the most successful fraud strategy for cyber-crooks, & represents growing numbers, states the US Federal Trade Commission. In 2020, romance schemes accounted for a record $304m stolen, says this new data – up about 50% over 2019.
These scams usually begin with an online connection that then becomes daily communications. The scammer develops a relationship with the target from afar & eventually asks for money. The target then sends funds in the form of a gift card (this payment type was up 80% in 2020, the FTC found) or a wire-transfer.
“Sooner or later, these scammers always ask for money,” the FTC said in a notice last week. “They might say it’s for a phone card to keep chatting. Or they might claim it is for a medical emergency, with COVID-19 often sprinkled into their tales of woe.
The stories are endless & can create a sense of urgency that pushes people to send money over & over again.”
Romance scams have done well during the COVID-19 pandemic, thanks to a widening circle of targets, the FTC explained. More people are turning to virtual ways of connecting & are using social media & online dating apps more.
“Scammers fabricate attractive online profiles to draw people in, often lifting pictures from the web & using made up names,” according to the FTC. “Some go a step further & assume the identities of real people. Once they make online contact, they make up reasons not to meet in person.
The pandemic has both made that easier & inspired new versions of their stories, with many people reporting that their so-called wannabe partner claimed to be unable to travel because of the pandemic. Some scammers have reportedly even cancelled 1st date plans due to a supposed positive COVID-19 test.”
Another part of romance fraud involves victims being unknowingly used for money-laundering.
“People believe their new partner has actually sent them a large sum of money,” according to the notice. “Scammers claim to have sent money for a cooked-up reason, & then have a detailed story about why the money needs to be sent back to them or on to someone else.
People think they are helping someone they care about, but they may actually be laundering stolen funds. In fact, many reported that the money they received & forwarded on turned out to be stolen unemployment benefits.”
In 2020, the average $ loss for each victim was circa $2,500 – over 10x the average loss across all other fraud types, the FTC commented. That is the highest losses ever, says the FTC, but romance fraud has been on the rise for a while., IN 2016-2020, total $ losses increased more than 4x, & the number of reports to the FTC nearly tripled.
The losses vary by age group. According to the FTC, people ages 20-29 saw the largest increase in targeting, with the number of reports more than doubling since 2019. People ages 40-69 were the most likely to report losing money, however. People 70+ reported the highest individual average losses at $9,475.
Romance is a popular topic for cyber-crime generally. Before Valentine’s Day, a campaign using fake “recent order” email confirmations for flowers or lingerie began circulating. These emails are actually part of a spear-phishing attack, which ultimately leads recipients to a malicious document that executes the Baza Loader malware.