Amy Alexander: Scams take many forms.
They might happen at a certain time of year, like the holiday season. Or they might target a particular group, like senior citizens.
Romance scams target people looking for love.
But one thing scams almost always have in common? Money.
On this episode of Inside the FBI, we’re discussing some of the tactics that criminals use to get victims to send them money. And we'll see that while there are new ways to get victims to pay, the game is always the same.
I’m Amy Alexander, and this is Inside the FBI.
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Alexander: Today, we're here with Supervisory Special Agent David Harding, program manager for the FBI's Economic Crimes Unit. SSA Harding, thanks for joining us.
David Harding: Thank you for having me.
Alexander: For our listeners who may not be familiar with romance scams, can you briefly describe for us what those are?
Harding: The concept of a romance scam, pretty self-explanatory, but it is a form of social engineering where the scammer targets individuals looking for companionship or romance who they can then manipulate and extract money or other services from.
Alexander: Is it true that these scams are impacting more victims and incurring more money in losses each year?
Harding: That's correct. Every year, year over year, these numbers get larger and larger.
I know in 2021, the total internet scam loss amount was somewhere under $7 billion. Specifically related to confidence or romance scams, it's totaling about $956 million, with about 24,000 complainants.
Alexander: That's a lot of money. At some point during the romance scam, and it may not be immediately—it may be weeks or months later—the scammer’s gonna ask for money. What sorts of payment might they ask for?
Harding: Twenty years ago, it was a very simple, straightforward process through checks or ACH transfers, wire transfers. However, as we’ve become more sophisticated and more advanced, you're seeing digital payments, you're seeing the same traditional wire transfers, you're seeing cashier's checks, gift cards, or even, at times, cryptocurrency.
Alexander: Why would the scammer ask for gift cards or cryptocurrency as opposed to cash?
Harding: With crypto or gift cards, there is a level of perceived anonymity where the scammer has the belief or thought that using these methods of payment, it's harder to track them down.
Alexander: I've never thought of romance scams and cryptocurrency being connected. Can you explain how this connection works?
Harding: You know, a lot of times these victims and the population, in general, are not necessarily comfortable with the concept of using cryptocurrency. It's still relatively new and, you know, not widespread. So, what these scammers are able to do through this bond and this relationship that they have built with their victims, they can begin to manipulate these victims to do things that they wouldn't normally do.
And one of those is to learn how to invest and use cryptocurrency in order to make payments to these scammers.
Alexander: You briefly mentioned about how scammers don't always ask for the gift cards or cryptocurrency outright, but that they sometimes draw their victims into a more elaborate investment fraud instead. Can you tell us how that would work?
Harding: There are, you know, scammers out there, that are some of the more sophisticated ones that use these companionship or romance scams to draw their targets in in order to extract even greater amounts of money and get them to do things, including, you know, act as money mules and things. And that, that's definitely a greater time investment by these scammers to do these things.
And if somebody is not comfortable with using, you know, a cryptocurrency, these scammers would then, you know, take their time to build the confidence and build that relationship, and then they can get them to do things that would be, you know, way out of their comfort zone. These scammers use all sorts of techniques to build these relationships.
You know, it's not something that they just talk to these people. You know, there are stories of these scammers, especially overseas, you know, that are sending flowers and delivering food and little things that, you know, you and I have experienced in personal relationships. But they're doing it from thousands of miles away.
Alexander: So, how likely is it to recover the money once a victim has been scammed?
Harding: The biggest thing I'd like the listeners to take away from this is that the earlier that these crimes are reported, the more success we've had in recovering the assets. So the key is early reporting. And, you know, when that occurs, we have had some great success getting funds back.
Alexander: They say love is blind, but what are some red flags people can look out for to avoid becoming a victim?
Harding: Some of the red flags that you would see immediately, if you've never met this person and your communication has only been, you know, online or sometimes even via the telephone, that's a definite red flag. If they deflect and come up with excuses time and time again as to why they can't meet, that's definitely a concern.
If it doesn't feel right, if something is unusual, if they're always, you know, asking you for something but never, you know, reciprocating in any sort of relationship, that's definitely a concern.
Alexander: If a victim realizes they've fallen for one of these scams, do they typically report their experiences to law enforcement?
Harding: They often do report it. However, unfortunately, there are times where the victims are either too embarrassed or don't want their friends and family to know that they've become a victim or, you know, there are times where they are in denial that they're even a victim.
For example, I have had a situation where a child of a woman came to us, reported that their mother was being victimized by one of these romance scams. And when we went and interviewed the the woman, she was still convinced that this individual and this relationship, this companionship that she had virtually, was completely real.
When you reviewed her social media accounts, you know, she really had this connection with this individual, and trying to convince this woman that this relationship was completely fabricated was very challenging.
So, these victims often become, you know, very infatuated or tied into their subjects.
Alexander: So, if you think you've been scammed, how can you report it?
Harding: Reporting to your local police station or local law enforcement is is a great way to go. You can also report these types of crimes to our public access line. It's 1-800-CALL-FBI, as well as ic3.gov.
Alexander: That’s the official website of the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center.
For more advice on protecting your heart and wallet, visit fbi.gov/RomanceScams.
This has been another production of Inside the FBI. You can follow us on your favorite podcast player, including Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and Google Podcasts. You can also subscribe to email alerts about new episodes at fbi.gov/podcasts.
I’m Amy Alexander from the FBI’s Office of Public Affairs. Thanks for tuning in.