Romance Fraud (also known as catfishing or dating fraud) is one of the most common types of crime on the internet, and Bitcoin is increasingly used by fraudsters as part of the scam. According to IC3 statistics, Romance Fraud has been at an alarming rise. Losses in the United States alone rose from $211 million to $475 million from 2017 to 2019.
This article serves to raise awareness on the topic to prevent people from being victimized by this popular type of cybercrime. As we’re all spending more time at home due to COVID-19, we’re spending more time online too. It’s the perfect opportunity for romance fraudsters to find and exploit their victims.
What is Romance Fraud?
The scam works by exploiting the emotions of victims. The victim meets an unknown person online and starts a chat. The chat starts friendly but turns romantic rather quickly after just a few contacts. They will try to move away from the dating app or site quickly with the excuse of communicating “more privately” via instant messaging or email.
WhatsApp is very popular. The most common stories involve the unknown person being based abroad and working in the military, working on an oil rig, or carrying out important charity work. This helps them to paint a picture of being trustworthy and reliable. It also gives an excuse for the use of international country codes and a poor internet connection.
They’ll open about a problem, or something that is worrying them to appear vulnerable and make the victim feel sorry for them. This is often referred to as the grooming stage. After this stage, the victim starts sending money or gifts to the fraudsters. This stage can go on for several weeks or even months or years. He or she will promise to pay it back, but that will never happen. Instead, the fraudster will keep asking for more until the victim realizes it’s a fraud. It has a devastating emotional and financial impact on the victim, who often feel foolish and betrayed.
How to spot Romance Fraud and avoid being scammed
Dating portals and apps can be great tools for meeting new people. However, one needs to be very careful when communicating with potential lovers. Fraudsters are very skilled in spinning emotional stories to lure in their victims. However, there are some red flags that might help you spot them. These include the following:
- They have a very attractive profile picture
- They ask a lot of very personal questions. This is because the more information they know about their target, the easier they will be to manipulate.
- They soon want to leave the dating site, or app, to use WhatsApp, email or SMS
- Their spelling and grammar are poor
- They immediately need money due to an emergency situation
- They claim to be working or traveling overseas as a reason for the international calls, and they can’t ever attend to video calls due to a poor internet connection
- They plan a visit on various occasions, but something comes up at the very last minute that prevents them from coming
No matter how long you’ve been speaking to someone online and how much you trust them, if you haven’t met them in person do not, ever:
- Wire them any money
- Invest your own money on their behalf or on their advice
- Purchase and send cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin
- Purchase and send the codes on gift cards from Amazon or iTunes
- Allow them access to your bank account
- Transfer money on their behalf
- Take a loan out for them
- Provide copies of your personal documents such as passports or driving licenses
- Agree to receive and/or send parcels on their behalf
Also, don’t give away too many personal details about yourself online. Revealing your full name, date of birth and home address alone could lead to your identity being stolen. Be very careful when using your webcam or phone camera with an unknown person, even if it’s someone whom you think you know. The footage could be recorded and used against you. Fraudsters are known to blackmail their targets using compromising material.
Be cautious and trust your instincts. If something feels wrong, it probably is.
How to avoid losing money to a Romance Fraudster
Here’s the bottom line: Never send money or gifts to a loved one you haven’t met in person. Besides old-fashioned bank wire transfers, fraudsters will sometimes ask you to pay them with cryptocurrencies, reload cards, or gift cards because they can get cash quickly and remain anonymous. They also know these types of transactions are almost impossible to reverse.
If you suspect that you’re a victim of Romance Fraud:
- Stop talking to the person immediately and report their profile as ‘fake’ to the dating or social media site they first approached you on.
- If you paid with gift cards, contact the gift card company. Tell them you paid a fraudster with the gift card and ask if they can refund your money.
- If you have wired money from your bank account. Contact your bank right away. Tell them you wired money to a fraudster.
- When you have sent cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin to a fraudster, contact us immediately for assistance.
You can also file suspicions of Romance Fraud to Scamalytics (anonymously). Using an online form you can enter images, names and details of potential Romance fraudsters. This not only keeps yourself and your loved ones safe from Romance Fraud, but could prevent others from falling victim too.