Scammer: I just need $5,000 for the airfare. I’ll send it back once I get the bank to unfreeze my accounts.
Woman: $5,000... that's a lot. I’m not sure I can send that much.
Scammer: I know, but just remember... this is my ticket to come visit you we’re talking about. To get to see you... after all this time. That’s still what you want, right?
Woman: Course it is.
Scammer: OK, so you’ll send me the money?
Woman: OK, I just clicked transfer. You should have the money in a day or two. So, I’ll see you soon, right?
* * *
Steve Lewis: You can get contacted a number of different ways: Maybe you get a direct message on social media. Maybe you get a random email. Maybe you get connected through a dating app.
Over a short but intense period of time, you find yourself in a close, online relationship with this person. They make promises to you about your future together. You grow to trust and love them.
Then the demands of money start—and it turns out that instead of falling in love, you’ve fallen for a romance scam.
On this episode of Inside the FBI, we’ll discuss what are known as romance scams. We’ll talk about how these scams work, how to protect yourself, and what to do if you’re a victim.
This is a crime that can impact people from all age, education, and income brackets, so even if you don’t think you could be a victim of this type of scam, we encourage you to listen in. Even if not for yourself, you may be able to help a friend or family member with this information.
I’m Steve Lewis, and this is Inside the FBI.
Today on Inside the FBI, I’m talking with my colleague Monica Grover from the FBI’s Office of Public Affairs about romance scams.
Lewis: Hey, Monica.
Monica Grover: Hi, Steve.
Lewis: So first off, since these are commonly called romance scams, I know some people might think right off the bat that they could never be a victim, since they might not be looking for love. Is that really the case?
Grover: So, these types of scams aren’t always about romance—they’re also called confidence scams. Really, the scam can involve any type of relationship built on trust.
So that might be romantic, but it might also be just a friendship. Some scammers even pretend they’re part of your family.
It’s the same premise: You get so close to this person and wouldn’t hesitate to help them out no matter the ask, whether it’s for money, valuables, or personal or financial information.
Lewis: And do criminals tend to target certain people in these schemes?
Grover: According to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, or the IC3, it's women, the elderly, and people who have lost a spouse who are often targeted.
And if you’re in an online relationship, remember to proceed with caution and use your best judgement.
But again, these types of scams can honestly happen to anyone.
Lewis: OK, yeah I definitely agree there. So in these types of scams, the criminal tries to get close to you, but where or how are they reaching out or finding you in the first place?
Grover: Yeah, so, scammers tend to troll places like dating sites and social media, and that’s usually where they’ll contact you. And sometimes they’ll say they have some sort of connection to you already, like a friend in common, to get you to chat with them and establish a bond or sense of trustworthiness.
Lewis: Let’s talk about dating sites and apps for a bit. What should people look out for when they’re using those?
Grover: There are a lot of things to be aware of or think about for sure.
Grover: One red flag is when someone tries to move the conversation off the dating site right away, to basically get out of that more “official” environment.
Grover: Eventually it might be common to move to something else, like text messages, but be wary of anyone who seems to want to bypass that dating site entirely.
You should also be cautious if anyone says right away that it was fate or destiny that you two met.
Grover: It might sound romantic, but it might also just be a line from a scammer who's trying to quickly create a relationship with you.
Make sure you really scrutinize people’s answers to your questions and the information they give you. Look for inconsistencies in their stories or if they’re dodging specific questions that you ask.
And of course—and we’ll talk about this more—but don’t trust anyone that you’ve only met online who asks you for money.
Lewis: So, it sounds like the scammers are really good at what they do to draw victims in…
Monica: Unfortunately, yes.
These criminals spend a lot of time working to build people’s trust, whether it’s using, like, well-rehearsed scripts or keeping journals on their victims. It might not be a coincidence that somebody likes all the same books, movies, or hobbies that you do.
These scammers know how to seem genuine, caring, and believable.
Honestly, they might seem perfect, which really just means they’re too good to be true.
Lewis: Yeah, I mean so I'm going to be really impressed if they are like, "Oh, I love rock climbing." Or, you know, "I like going to see live music." So, I think that's definitely something to watch out for.
Grover: Exactly, yeah.
Lewis: So, we’ve gone through the basics of these types of scams, but can you walk us through a story someone might actually try to use?
Grover: Yeah, of course. There are different scenarios, so just because this isn’t the particular story you hear doesn’t mean it’s not a scam.
But in one version of the scam, someone might pretend to be a U.S. citizen living abroad.
Grover: They ask you to send gifts to a foreign address even. And after they get close to you, the scammer says they want to come back to the States to meet you—they just need money for airfare.
So, you send the money… and then you never meet the person behind the screen.
Lewis: What does the scammer do after you ask them why they didn’t make their flight?
Grover: Yeah, so they’ll provide some sort of excuse. Maybe they say the money “never got to them,” and they ask you to send it again. Sometimes, they pretend they got “arrested” while trying to travel, and they’ll ask you to send bail money.
Grover: Whatever they can do or say to convince you to send more money.
Lewis: Hmm, so do these scammers ever stop asking for money at all?
Grover: Usually, they’ll only ever stop if you’re unable or unwilling to send more.
And, and some victims have actually reported losing their life savings to these scams.
Lewis: Hmm, that's incredible. So, how can people protect themselves—and their bank accounts?
Grover: There are actually a lot of things that you can do.
First off, take a good look at your own online profiles—how much are you really sharing?
Scammers can use the details that you share on social media and dating sites to try to figure out how to appeal to you, how to build that connection. So really, this is good advice in general, just making sure you aren’t sharing too much private information online.
Grover: And before you start talking to anyone online that you don’t know, make sure you take a look at their profile, too.
Search online for their name, photo, other details—do all those seem to line up with the profile that’s contacting you?
Or instead, does it look like someone stole someone else’s information or photo to build a fake profile?
Lewis: So, so you can’t even trust someone even after they’ve sent you their picture?
Grover: Not always. You still have to make sure it’s really them.
In these scams, the criminals rarely use their own photos. More often than not, it’s a photo they’ve stolen from someone else, and it isn’t them at all.
You can even do what’s called a “reverse image search” to see where else an image has already been posted online.
So for example, maybe it’s Chelsea, a veterinarian from Ohio, that’s contacting you...
Grover: ...but you’re feeling a little worried that you’re being scammed. So you do a reverse image search for that picture, and the results you get show you that... well that’s actually Claire, a doctor from Iowa.
Something like that should definitely set alarm bells off in your head.
Lewis: OK, so, so what if I have been talking to someone for a few months, but we’ve never met—and then they ask me for money. I know not to send any money, but what else should I do to stay safe?
Grover: You should stop all communication with that person immediately, on any and all the platforms you’re talking to them on.
If you do think you’re being scammed, report it to ic3.gov.
You can actually report scams whether or not you’ve lost money.
You should also report the suspicious activity to whatever website or app that you and the scammer first made contact on.
Grover: And make sure you also reach out to your financial institution to report any suspicious or fraudulent transactions related to the scam.
Lewis: How common and serious are these scams?
Grover: Pretty serious actually. So, according to the IC3, more than 23,000 people were victims of romance scams in 2020. And during that year, people lost more than $600 million.
And it’s likely that many more scams actually went unreported.
Lewis: Yeah, oh yeah.
Grover: Not only are thousands of people losing a lot of money through these scams, but they’re also opening themselves up to possibly becoming unwitting participants in crimes, too. In some cases, romance scammers are actually looking to recruit money mules.
Lewis: Money mules, they transfer illegally acquired money for other people, right?
Grover: Yeah, exactly. And acting as a money mule is illegal and punishable, even if you don’t know you’re committing a crime.
So in some of these romance scams, you might actually be asked to transfer money. Someone might say to you, “Hey, open this bank account for me, I’m going to send you some money, and then can you send it to this other account?” You know, that sort of thing.
So, don’t ever agree to any of those kinds of requests.
You might actually be helping launder proceeds from other scams or even from crimes, like drug trafficking or human trafficking.
Lewis: Thanks to Monica for joining us today and giving us some insight into these really costly scams. But before you go, could you tell us where we can learn more?
Monica: Yeah, absolutely. You can visit fbi.gov/romancescams.
We also have resources about money muling at fbi.gov/moneymules.
And, as always, you can report any online-enabled scams at ic3.gov.
Lewis: This has been another production of Inside the FBI. I’m Steve Lewis with the FBI’s Office of Public Affairs. Thanks again for tuning in.
We hope you keep these tips in mind so you can protect your heart—and your bank account.