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Romance scams: Protecting hearts and wallets

Terri Luttrell, CAMS-Audit, CFCS
February 8, 2024
Read Time: 0 min

Romance scams are costly and cruel, and happening everyday.

You may not be in the market for a relationship, but you can help protect others from falling for romance scams.

You might also like this on-demand webinar explaining how fraudsters use checks to their advantage.

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As Valentine's Day approaches, love is in the air, and many individuals find themselves eager to connect with someone special. Unfortunately, amid the excitement and anticipation, there's a darker side to romance that preys on unsuspecting hearts – romance scams. Seniors, those over 60 are often isolated and lonely and are particularly vulnerable to this type of fraud, but anyone can become a victim.  

Romance scams, also called confidence fraud, are one of the most common and costly forms of fraud schemes seen in the U.S. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), nearly 70,000 people reported a romance scam in 2022 and reported losses hit a staggering $1.3 billion. Often, those figures include the victim’s entire life savings. Many of these crimes go unreported due to victim shame and embarrassment, so the total dollars lost is most likely much higher. The 2023 figures have not yet been released, but they are looking to continue the upward trend. 

Looking for love in all the wrong places

Romance Scams = Fraud

Using fake photos and made-up information on social media and dating apps, scammers target people looking for love. They build a fake relationship with their victim, being affectionate and attentive. The fraudster often avoids meeting in person or via video calls, making excuses like being in the military or off doing charity work. Once trust is built, they ask for money, claiming family issues, medical expenses, or needing funds for travel to meet in person. The requests start small but increase over time, leaving victims emotionally and financially devastated. This most often involves romantic relationships but can also surface in new friendships or caregiver relationships. 

Pig Butchering is a type of romance scam that is as horrific as the name implies, with victims likened to hogs fattened up for slaughter. These fraudulent schemes typically start with scammers reaching out to potential victims in a seemingly arbitrary manner. They then proceed to build trust before maneuvering the victims into fraudulent investment schemes, primarily in cryptocurrency, ultimately absconding with the invested funds. In recent years, the prevalence of pig butchering scams has surged, resulting in significant financial losses for individual investors, sometimes reaching hundreds of thousands of dollars. According to the FBI, victims of this type of investment fraud reported losses of $3.3 billion in 2022, a 127% increase from $1.45 billion in 2021. 

Update your board about AML/fraud threats with this infographic: "5 Fraud typologies impacting you and your customers."

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The FTC warns that there is no end to the lies romance scammers will tell to get your money. According to the FTC data, here are the more common lies used to lure victims into sending funds: 

 

Protecting others from fraud

The role of banks in your love life

Financial institutions play a crucial role in not only securing their clients' financial assets but also in protecting their emotional well-being from the rising threat of romance scams. It is essential to understand the red flags associated with romance scams and discuss openly with clients the steps to safeguard them from falling victim to these heartless crimes. Below are some of the red flags that will help identify these scammers before it’s too late.   

  1. Too good to be true: If the person you're communicating with seems too perfect, be cautious. Scammers often create idealized personas to win your trust quickly. Be especially vigilant if the new love interest attempts to isolate you from friends and family. 
  2. Unrealistic progression: Be wary of relationships that progress at an unusually fast pace. Scammers want to escalate emotions quickly to manipulate victims into making hasty decisions. Go slowly and ask the person questions to help verify that they are who they say they are.
  3. Avoiding face-to-face interaction: If your online love interest consistently avoids video calls or in-person meetings, it's a significant red flag. Scammers prefer to maintain anonymity because they are not anything like who they say they are. 
  4. Financial requests: The ultimate goal of romance scammers is to obtain as much money as possible from their victims. If an online partner asks for financial assistance, gifts, or access to your personal information, proceed with extreme caution. 

For financial institutions, identifying warning signs is critical to detecting fraud before the victim experiences devastating losses: 

  1. Transaction monitoring: Implement transaction monitoring software and fraud detection software that detects patterns associated with romance scams, triggering alerts for further investigation. Monitor for irregular activities, such as large fund transfers or repeated small transactions, which may indicate a client falling prey to a scam. Be particularly attentive to transactions for seniors.
  2. Sudden urgency for funds: Clients seeking immediate financial transactions, such as large wire transfers due to unforeseen personal crises, could be indicative of a romance scam. Strengthen customer verification procedures, especially when clients request fund transfers or changes to account details. Additional authentication layers can prevent unauthorized transactions. 
  3. Unusual recipients: Pay attention to unusual or unfamiliar payees, especially those tied to romantic stories, as they may be conduits for fraudulent activities.
  4. Educational initiatives: Launch comprehensive awareness campaigns to educate clients about the prevalence of romance scams, warning signs, and the importance of verifying requests for financial assistance. 

 The FBI shares these methods of protecting yourself from falling victim to romance scams: 

  1. Research and verification: Before getting emotionally invested, perform a thorough background check. Verify the person's identity and use online tools to cross-check information. 
  2. Guard personal information: Be vigilant before you share personal information online with a new relationship. Scammers can use details shared on dating sites and social media platforms to better target victims. Never share personally identifiable information with someone you've just met.
  3. Be skeptical of sob stories: Scammers often use heartbreaking tales to elicit sympathy. While compassion is essential, exercise caution if someone consistently presents stories that seem too tragic to be true.
  4. Stay on trusted platforms: While well-known platforms can have fraudsters lurking about, sticking to reputable dating platforms with strict security measures can lessen your chances of being scammed. Avoid moving communication to private email or messaging apps too quickly.
  5. Protect your loved ones: If you notice older family members using new communications apps or dating sites, explain the red flags and pitfalls so they don’t fall victim to these criminals. This can be a difficult conversation, so try to catch it early. 

Wrapping it up

Conclusion

This Valentine's Day, if you come across a new love interest, be vigilant and proactive in protecting your heart and wallet. Romance scams can happen to anyone, but by staying informed and following these precautions, you can create a safer online dating experience. True love is built on trust, and being cautious doesn't diminish the joy of finding a genuine connection. So, embrace the spirit of love with open eyes and an open heart, and cherish the bonds that may come your way. If you suspect your relationship is a scam, stop all contact immediately.  

The FBI advises reporting scams and attempted fraud to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center at www.ic3.gov or calling 1-800-CALL-FBI (225-5324). You should also alert your financial institution if you’ve already sent money. 

About the Author

Terri Luttrell, CAMS-Audit, CFCS

Compliance and Engagement Director
Terri Luttrell is a seasoned AML professional and former director and AML/OFAC officer with over 20 years in the banking industry, working both in medium and large community and commercial banks ranging from $2 billion to $330 billion in asset size.

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About Abrigo

Abrigo enables U.S. financial institutions to support their communities through technology that fights financial crime, grows loans and deposits, and optimizes risk. Abrigo's platform centralizes the institution's data, creates a digital user experience, ensures compliance, and delivers efficiency for scale and profitable growth.

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