BRAUN: Lonely hearts beware — online romance scams on the rise


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Fasten your seatbelt. Online dating and romance scams are on the rise everywhere.

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With March being fraud prevention month in Canada, a recent story in the Washington Post explained that romance scams are proliferating thanks to social media and dating apps, with the wider acceptance of cryptocurrency opening a whole new audience to the potential for being scammed.

The pandemic has only made everything worse, both increasing people’s social isolation while giving scam artists the perfect excuse to avoid meeting in person.

And these fraudsters are bad people, some targeting mentally and physically handicapped individuals. Organized crime is involved.

Romance scams are tricky. Once the heart is engaged, the brain is often lost. Greed and fear are powerful motivators, but love trumps them both.

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It’s easy to talk about personality types and try to pinpoint who is most vulnerable to romance scams, but again — cryptocurrency and the pandemic are changing all the rules.

Used to be that the typical mark was a lonely middle-aged woman with impulsivity issues and a trusting nature. Last year, although scams increased across all age groups, the biggest jump was in the age group 18 to 29. Seniors are also hard-hit in these scams.

And men are just as susceptible as women — but more reluctant to report getting fleeced.

In 2021 in Canada, $64 million was lost in romance scams, or at least, in the ones that were reported. Many people are too ashamed to go to the authorities.

Investment and romance scams were the top two swindles of the year; the amount lost in 2021 more than doubled over 2020’s total of $27 million.

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A recent article in McMaster University’s Brighter World outlines how organized crime has infiltrated online dating and puts the fraud figure at $100 million lost over 2020 and 2021.

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Scammers, many of whom work for Chinese crime gangs, use dating apps and social media to pose as professionals looking for love, “and target single women and men, LGBTQ+ and those over 50 years old, as well as new immigrants as their potential victims ,” writes sociologist Carlo Handy Charles.

They use the pandemic as an excuse for not meeting in public, but represent themselves as local and living nearby. They use social media to get to know their mark and present themselves as the perfect mate.

They convince the victim they’re not interested in money, then suggest investing together in cryptocurrency as a couple. Love (and greed) leads people to clean out their bank accounts, sell their houses, take on loans.

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A scammer can learn almost everything he needs to know about you from social media. People post photos and details about friends and family, vacation spots, favorite restaurants, that high school reunion, the cottage, the dog — think how much information you’ve inadvertently supplied.

The scams are sophisticated. Scammers will patiently groom a mark for months, even years, before asking for money — and by that time, the victim is completely taken in.

The web is so intricate that some victims continue to deny they’ve been swindled, even after authorities tell them so.

In the US, reported scams went up 70% in 2021 over the year before, and the total money lost was up 78%, to $547 million, according to the Washington Post (The FBI puts the total around $1 billion).

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Crypto scams account for a large chunk of that. That prompts repeated calls for education and regulation, but fraudsters tend to find new angles.

Every policing body warns about red flags: too much love too soon, too many requests for personal information, that sudden emergency, investment opportunity, or tragedy that requires money urgently to fix.

People are advised to do a background check, to call a private investigator, to do a reverse photo check — all good advice — but somehow, the scams continue.

Every online dating site and social media site (yes, all the Sugar Daddy/Sugar Baby sites, too) are crawling with fraudsters.

As a general rule of thumb, don’t give money to someone you’ve never met, no matter how “perfect” he or she might be. Don’t offer any pertinent information about yourself — even your birthday — to an online “friend.”

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Ask an actual friend or family member to look over the situation if you’re unsure.

Never send photos of yourself to someone you’ve never met.

If you’ve been scammed, report it to the police. It may help someone else avoid the same fate.

And remember the main advice from everyone involved in trying to prevent these scams:

When something seems too good to be true, it usually is.

WHAT THE SECURITY EXPERTS SAY

How bad is it? FBI puts the US 2021 losses from romance scams at $1 billion.

The cybersecurity experts at Norton offer excellent guidance to avoid romance scammers.

Online dating fraud often ends with victims losing money and, Norton cautions, in some cases, victims are even unwittingly involved in criminal activity.

Besides losing money, victims may also suffer steep emotional losses and feel depressed and heartbroken. Look before you leap. Here’s a list of red flags:

•They’re far, far away.

•Their profile seems too good to be true.

•The relationship moves fast.

•They break promises to visit.

•They claim they need money.

•They ask for specific payment methods.

Every anti-fraud specialist says that it’s a red flag to move communications off the dating website to email, text, or phone.

Homework: Watch The Tinder Swindler on Netflix.

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