As a financial advisor I have seen all types of attempted scams on clients, but one of the most devastating scams is the romance scam.
In 2018 people reported losing $143 million to romance scams in the US, according to the Federal Trade Commission. That is a staggering amount of money. But this figure is likely only a small percentage of the actual amount of money lost when you consider how many people probably did not report being scammed. And what’s worse, is that romance scams are on the rise according to a Federal Trade Commission consumer protection data spotlight.
Why Does the Scam Work?
Elderly adults, particularly widows, are increasingly vulnerable to romance scams because they may be lonely or seeking companionship following a loss. Even if it’s been several years following a loss, the surviving spouse may be emotionally fragile and their guard is down. Sadly, romance scammers know this, and it presents the perfect door for scammers to gain trust.
Unlike some scams which are “one and done” scams, the romance scammer is in it for the long haul. They establish a very “real” emotional relationship with the widow and they know it will pay off. Once the scammer gains their trust, they begin to ask for small amounts of money, usually with the promise that it will be repaid in the near future. Since trust has been established, and an emotional connection has been made, the widow feels happy to help them; after all they will be “repaid.”
Sadly, the scammer will generally be able to make many more successful (and larger) money requests over a prolonged period of time. Once the scammer has moved on, the widow is not only left feeling incredibly vulnerable, but they also suffer emotionally from the loss of this “relationship.”
What Red Flags Can You Look Out For?
Romance scammers are very good at what they do, but ultimately they all ask for the same thing: money. These scammers are good at disguising their requests for money so that it doesn’t seem quite as obvious. Here is a short list of what to look out for:
- They need to buy a plane ticket or have other travel expenses to see you
- They need money for a surgery or other medical expense
- They have an unexpected expense like fixing their car
- They need a down payment for a purchase or a business need
- They need to pay customs fees to retrieve something
The list goes on and on, however the story is the same; they want your money, and you’re not going to get it back.
Other common red flags include the scammer falling in love very quickly, being a US citizen that is working abroad, or serving in the military abroad.
If you hear any of these red flags, let alone a combination of them, there is a very high likelihood that you are talking to a romance scammer. Immediately stop talking with the person and take steps to block their communication with you.
What Can You Do to Avoid Being Scammed?
The single best way for older adults to not fall victim to this scam is by discussing the relationship openly with close family and friends.
The vast majority of these romance scams work simply because the victim has been pressured not to discuss the relationship or they may feel shy or embarrassed to discuss their new online relationship with family. This is perfectly understandable, but it is precisely why romance scammers are able to steal so much money. The romance scam works so well because there is no outside intervention to say “stop, let’s think about this” rather than blindly giving with one’s heart.
What Can You Do if You Have Been Scammed?
If you believe that you may have been scammed, immediately stop talking with the person, and report it to the Federal Trade Commission at www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov. You can report the incident online or you can call (877) 382-4357. Reporting the incident will go a long way to helping prevent others from falling victim to these scammers.
Then speak with a close friend or family member for support. For many victims of romance scams, the relationship was real and the “breakup” is not only difficult to deal with, but it may bring up emotions of loss.
Romance scammers are professionals at what they do, and they won’t stop. As an older adult if you ever find yourself in a new relationship (online or otherwise) where the person begins making money requests, this should be an enormous red flag. Seek out someone whom you trust to get their perspective before ever sending any money. A single conversation with a trusted friend or family member may be the only thing that stands between you and financial and emotional ruin.