EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) — Love is patient, love is kind, and the FBI wants you to be aware of romance crime.
The FBI says cyber criminals are taking advantage of pandemic loneliness and the amorous air around Valentine’s Day to drain a person’s bank account.
The scammers are skilled in social engineering and psychology that enable them to emotionally manipulate and financially exploit by isolating a person in an already socially-deprived climate.
“These individuals are very good at crafting their skill at being able to separate you from your money,” says Special Agent Jeff Reisinger at the FBI El Paso Division.
According to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), romance scams have resulted in one of the highest amounts of financial losses when compared to other online crimes.
The El Paso Division, which includes El Paso, Midland/Odessa and Alpine, 82 complaints were filed with financial losses totaling approximately $2.3 million:
- 62 victims in El Paso reported financial losses totaling $1,688,398
- 13 victims in Midland reported financial losses totaling $217,489
- 7 victims in Alpine reported losing $349,855
Reisinger says the scam begins with too-good-to-be-true courtship.
“They will usually try to send gifts to the victim. These little gifts of affection will be flowers, candy, sometimes even pizza,” he explains.
People are particularly vulnerable as dating paradigms continue to shift pursuant to the pandemic.
The 2020 Singles in America survey reports nationwide shutdowns and stay-at-home orders caused daters to slow down their romantic quests in favor of taking time to develop a slow-burning (and hopefully sustaining) relationship.
The data reports that 69 percent of respondents spent more time getting to know a potential partner online, while more than half said they re-evaluated their criteria for a partner and considered a more robust collection of prospects.
These trends correspond to the online vulnerability the FBI warns against concerning romantic scams.
Reisinger says scammers work in teams to vet a target and then spend months gathering information about them via social media in order to assume the persona of a compatible romantic partner.
As the courtship process occurs and trust develops, says Reisinger, the scammer will feign an emergency that requires financial assistance.
The FBI says “criminals often use stories of severe life circumstances, tragedies, deaths in the family, injuries to themselves, other hardships to keep their victims concerned and involved in their schemes. Scammers then often ask victims to send money to help them overcome a financial situation they claim to be experiencing. These are all lies intended to take money from unsuspecting victims.”
“Most often these romance scammers leave victims financially and emotionally devastated. Many victims may not have the ability to recover from the financial loss,” says Reisinger. “While we recognize that it may be embarrassing for victims to report this type of fraud, it’s important to do so, so that the FBI and our law enforcement partners can do everything in our power to ensure these online imposters are held accountable.”
The FBI advises that if you develop a romantic relationship with someone you meet online, consider the following:
- Scammers can use details shared on social media and dating sites to better understand and target you
- Research the person’s photo and profile using online searches to see if the image, name, or details have been used elsewhere
- Go slowly and ask lots of questions
- Beware if the individual seems too perfect, or quickly asks you to communicate “offline”
- Beware if the individual attempts to isolate you from friends and family
- Beware if the individual claims to be working and living far away, whether it’s on the other side of the country or overseas
- Beware if the individual promises to meet in person, but then always cancels because of some emergency
- Beware if you’re asked to send inappropriate photos or financial information that could later be used to extort you
- Never send money to anyone you don’t know personally
- Never help anyone move money through your own account or someone else’s. You could become an unwitting money mule for the perpetrator helping to carry out other theft and fraud schemes
If you suspect an online relationship is a scam, stop all contact immediately and if you have already sent money, it is extremely important to report any transfer of funds to your financial institution and file a complaint with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center at ic3.gov.