How Romance Scammers Steal Hearts and Money

Online dating has become enormously popular, with couples meeting on social media and dedicated dating sites and apps. According to a 2019 Stanford study, 39% of heterosexual couples met online rather than though a personal connection. As more people look to the internet to find love, scammers are waiting to fake their way into individuals’ hearts and bank accounts.

Romance scams are forms of online impersonation scams and confidence scams—both of which present a risk not only to those looking for love, but to businesses making connections digitally.

About the Scams

Online romance fraud typically takes the form of scammers running fake accounts designed to earn people’s trust and maintain phony relationships with the goal of stealing money from the victim. Often, these accounts use pictures found on the internet to create an attractive, convincing persona.

These phony personas use a number of social engineering techniques to overcome individuals’ reservations and reason. Scammers may play to the victim’s desires or create a narrative of urgency as a way to orchestrate a whirlwind romance, ensuring that when they finally ask for money, passion and emotion cloud the victim’s judgment.

Other scammers may opt for a more long-term approach, mimicking a real relationship to overcome suspicion and create a disarming sense of dependence. In these cases, it is common for the scammer to string the victim along, requesting travel expenses to meet in person before cancelling at the last minute.

Typically the fraudulent requests begin with gifts (often requested in Amazon wishlists) before the steeper, more dramatic requests begin. These more significant sums are often the endgame for scammers, sometimes in the form of a phony medical emergencies or travel expense.

Spotting an Online Impersonation Scam

Businesses operating in digital spaces face similar risks with impersonation scams. Often online impersonation scams use similar tactics to romance scams, relying on emotional factors – such as hesitancy to ask questions, deference to authority, and desire to please – to trick employees into making unauthorized transfers.

To prevent losses (or heartbreak) to these scams, SDC CPAs advises individuals and businesses making connections online take the following steps:

  • Look for red flags, including an insignificant digital footprint, untimely requests for money, and excuses for avoiding simultaneous/non text-based communication.
  • Watch for inconsistencies in answers or a relationship (business or personal) progressing too quickly.
  • Do not let urgency overrule caution.
  • Reverse-image search all pictures received to see if they are stolen.
  • Share details with trusted individuals, they may be able to provide perspective and notice additional red flags.

With the FTC reporting $143 million in online romance fraud losses in 2018, singles risk more than just a broken heart when looking for love. Losses to online romance scams may be claimed as theft in the tax year it is discovered if certain conditions are met. Victims of these scams should check their state’s laws to determine whether the scam would be considered theft and keep documentation to demonstrate the scammer’s intent.


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