How to avoid Valentine’s Day romance scams
Valentine’s Day 2021 is right around the corner, and the FBI is telling people to be on the lookout for romance scams. In this article, we’ll tell you what romance scams are, how they work, and how you can avoid them.
What are romance scams?
Romance scams are a kind of social engineering. In a romance scam, the scammer pretends to be romantically interested in their victim in order to gain their affection and trust. They then use the relationship to ask for money or personal information. In some romance scams, an element of extortion is also involved.
How do romance scams work?
Most romance scams begin online, often on Internet dating websites. Scammers will create a fake online dating profile, and then use the fraudulent profile to contact their victims.
The scammer’s goal is to make the victim feel like they have a real relationship with a real person. As soon as the target trusts them, the scammer will ask for something.
This is often a request for money. Some common examples include:
- Money to take care of a medical emergency or a health issue
- Money to handle a family emergency
- Money to pay legal fees or customs fees
- Money to buy an airline ticket to come visit
If the money is sent, a scammer will typically do one of two things. They will either stick around to ask for more money, or they will just disappear.
In some cases, scammers will ask for personal information instead of money. This information is used for phishing attacks or for identity theft.
Lastly, there are some scammers who ask for explicit photos or videos. The scammer will use this material to extort their victims, threatening to publish the photos or videos if they aren’t paid a ransom.
How to spot a romance scam
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many people are doing their socializing online, and this includes online dating. In addition, because of the stressful nature of the past year, as well as the lockdowns and business closures, there are now lots of isolated and lonely people around.
Sadly, this situation is the perfect opportunity for romance scammers. The good news is that there are some easily recognizable warning signs of a romance scam:
They’re perfect … too perfect
If someone is extremely wealthy, insanely attractive, and “just so happens” to share all of your interests and dreams, you should take a step back. It’s possible that you’ve found your soulmate. But if someone seems too good to be true, they probably are.
They won’t meet in person
Scammers don’t want to meet their victims in person — it’s just too risky for them. Because of this, they’ll find reasons why they can’t meet up; or they’ll make dates and then cancel them at the last minute. If someone refuses to meet with you, be suspicious. Of course, because of COVID-19, everyone has a plausible reason to avoid face-to-face meetings, so this red flag isn’t as helpful as it once was!
They’re not local … at all
Because romance scammers want to avoid in-person meetings, they’ll often work some excuse into their fake persona. For example, many romance scammers will claim to be working abroad, perhaps in the military or in the construction industry. If someone says they can’t meet with you because they’re out of the country, this may be true — but it’s also a common trick used by scammers.
They’re moving way too fast
Romance scammers don’t want to waste their time … just yours. For this reason, they’ll often move very quickly in their fake relationships, declaring their undying love for the victim after just a few weeks, or even proposing marriage! If the person you’re talking to seems to be moving too fast, this is a good sign that something isn’t right.
They want to go off-site
Dating websites know about romance scams, and they’re pretty good about removing fake profiles when they’re discovered. For this reason, romance scammers often try to get their victims off of the dating website, saying that they want to continue the conversation via phone, email, or chat app. That way, even if their fake profile gets taken down, they can still keep their scam going. If the person you’re talking to seems like they’re in a big hurry to get you off of the site, be careful!
They ask you for money
We don’t know who needs to hear this, but … it’s not normal behavior to ask someone for money when you’ve never met them in person. If someone from the online dating site starts asking you for money, no matter what the reason, this is a huge red flag in and of itself.
How to avoid romance scams
Now that you know what to look for, let’s talk about what you should do to stay safe. Here are a few general guidelines:
Be slow to trust
When you’re meeting people on dating websites, take it slowly. Don’t assume that anyone you meet online is who they say they are, and don’t trust people until you’ve known them for a good long time and, ideally, had a chance to meet with them in person.
Ask specific questions
If you meet someone on a dating website, ask them specific questions about their profile. When scammers create a fake persona, they usually don’t put a lot of effort into it … and it shows. If you ask someone a question about their hobbies, and they can’t answer you, or if they give you contradictory statements about their life, that’s a good sign that they aren’t who they say they are.
As you can probably imagine, most scammers don’t want to use their own photos to create fake profiles. Instead, they’ll steal someone else’s photo, or even use stock photos that they find online. Google’s reverse image search tool can help you spot this. Download the profile photo that you want to inspect, then go to the Google Images search page. Click on the camera icon and select Upload an image, find the image file on your computer, and upload it to let Google search for it. If the image was taken from another site, and if that site was indexed by Google, then it will appear in the search results. This isn’t a foolproof method, but it’s a good way to check for obviously fake profiles.
Don’t send money
Never send money to someone you meet on an online dating site. It’s normal to feel sympathy if someone tells you that they’re going through a hard time. You’re probably a kind person who would love to help. But that’s exactly what scammers are counting on. It may sound harsh, but if someone you’ve never met in person is asking you for money, the best thing to do is tell them about GoFundMe and wish them luck.
Don’t give out personal info
Never give out personal information to people you meet online, as this can be used for phishing attacks or identity theft. If someone says that they need your bank details so that they can send you a gift, or if they ask for other types of sensitive data, something is very wrong. Just say no!
Don’t send explicit material
Never send compromising photos or videos to people you meet online. The phenomenon of “sexploitation”, where scammers obtain NSFW images or videos, and then use them to extort or blackmail their victims, is on the rise. The best way to stay safe is to avoid sending that kind of material altogether.
More Valentine’s Day scams to watch out for
In addition to romance scams, there are a few more Valentine’s Day threats you should be aware of:
Flower and gift delivery scams
People send flowers, candies, and gifts around Valentine’s Day. Scammers know that, and they use this fact to perpetrate delivery scams. They’ll either tell people that there’s a problem with something they’ve ordered for someone else, or they’ll say that someone is trying to send them a special V-Day shipment, but that there’s an issue with the delivery.
Gift voucher and giveaway scams
There have been reports of Valentine’s Day phishing emails and texts that offer free gifts, vouchers, or romantic getaways. The emails and texts are fraudulent, of course, and contain malicious links and downloads.
Secret admirer scams
A perennial favorite of Valentine’s Day scammers is the “secret admirer” phishing email. Targets get an email telling them that they have a Valentine’s Day message, e-card, or image … sent by some mysterious unknown party. They’re encouraged to click on a link or download a file in order to view it, which will result in the victim being redirected to a malicious website or infected with malware.
As with any seasonal threat, be skeptical of all Valentine’s Day themed emails that come in over the next week or so, and don’t click on anything that comes unsolicited or from an unknown sender. To learn more about how to avoid delivery scams, check out this article that we released around the holidays; if you want a refresher on how to spot phishing attacks, this Checklist podcast episode has all the information you need.