Romance scams have accounted for $1.3 billion in losses over the previous five years alone, topping any other FTC fraud category.
The verb “catfish,” or to lure (someone) into a relationship by adopting a fictional online persona, was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2014. Oxford credited emergence of the term to the 2010 documentary “Catfish.” MTV’s unscripted TV show of the same name, investigating relationships predicated upon assuming a fallacious identity online, helped bring the word into the mainstream.
Romance scams: Are you at risk?
Twelve years later, catfishing is a common part of our English vernacular. Commonplace, too, are the various applications of catfishing used to take advantage of people looking for human connection.
Unsuspecting victims believe they are developing a genuine romantic relationship with a person online who slowly gains their trust, eventually asking for money. While romance scams have been happening for more than a decade now (see the aforementioned documentary), catfishing has leapt into the national spotlight thanks to “The Tindler Swindler” documentary on Netflix.
But recent public awareness may be too little too late for the many victims of 2021. The Federal Trade Commission reports that a whopping $547 million was lost to romance scammers last year, up 80% from 2020.
Which states are most vulnerable?
Social Catfish, an investigative research website dedicated to preventing identity fraud in dating apps, presents interesting data on romance scamming. A quick glance at their table of US states ordered based on money lost shows that romantic scams seem to follow population stats.
California tops the list with over 3,000 victims totaling almost $184 million lost in 2021. This is more than twice the money lost in runner-up Florida, who’s victims lost about $70 million with 1,738 victims.
Red flags to watch for:Online dating scams are on the rise, FBI and FTC warn
Following closely was Texas, which lost about $65 million to romance scams across 1,752 victims. At the bottom of the list was Maine with $386,894, Vermont losing $528,709, and DC losing $861,723.
Given that California, Florida, and Texas are the most densely populated states, it’s safe to assume that this is the most significant factor in their losses. So it doesn’t really matter where you live.
Further, catfish scams on dating apps are most often located in foreign countries, using a feature that allows users to date worldwide.
New scams on the rise
In any regard, dating is fickle and favors the resilient. However, in the world of online dating, a crucial misstep on Tinder or Bumble can cost you thousands. Here are some new ways catfish are scamming would-be lovers out of their money.
Spoiler alert: You can avoid every one of them by refusing to send money or personal information to someone you have never met in person.
- Accidental Money Laundering – This one doesn’t usually involve taking a victim’s money but instead using their bank information to commit money laundering on their behalf. The perpetrator will convince a romantic interest that his/her overseas family is in need, but they need a bank account to wire money to them. They then transfer money to a victim’s bank account and elsewhere, implicating them in a money-laundering scheme.
- Cryptocurrency – Ah, nontraceable digital currency, a scammer’s paradise. The FBI estimates that cryptocurrency-based romance scams accounted for losses of $429 million in 2021. Catfishers exuding status and wealth online will convince victims of their keen crypto knowledge and get them to invest funds into a shady crypto venture. Their money is never to be seen again.
- TikTok Teens – Teenagers are archetypally known as vulnerable and naïve, a scammer’s favorite qualities in their prey. Scammers are catfishing young and impressionable teens online with fake profiles and stolen profile photos, a common tactic used across all types of social media.
- Social Media Influencers – Catfishers have always picked attractive and cultured-looking individuals to steal photos from but are now shamelessly impersonating social media influencers. So it’s best to think twice if you receive a steamy DM from your favorite blogger or YouTube star.
- Gift Card Scams – Gift cards are attractive to scammers because they are an untraceable currency that can convert into cash in several ways. Scammers request gift cards because it is safer for them and may seem less alarming than asking for someone’s routing and checking account numbers.
- Sextortion – Sextortion is when an online romantic interest acquires nude or provocative photos, whether by their charm or hacking, and threatens to release them if their demands are not met. Sextortion scams were responsible for about $13.6 million of reported losses in 2021.
Tips and tricks to avoid romance scams
The FBI and FTC urge the public to proceed with caution while dating online, scrutinizing every dating match. Take a look at these helpful guidelines to ensure your assets are not contributing to next year’s Internet Crime Report.
Be mindful of what you are sharing with your social media feed. Scammers analyze your interests and hobbies to formulate better a romantic interest that will tug on your heartstrings.
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Analyze the social media profiles of every love interest. They probably are a scammer if they have seemingly genuine photos and interests but have created their profile in the last year and have few followers. Use reverse image search tools to find out if their pictures appear anywhere else on the web. Heck, you might even contact the real person in their photos!
> Excuses are a red flag for online dating. People looking for a real connection will make dating and communication a priority. If a person is constantly making excuses for not being able to video chat or meet in person, it’s time to start swiping again.
Bad grammar is common for scammers, although not exclusive to them. Many scammers operate from other countries, either using English as a second language or using a translating app.
Never share money, personal information, or explicit photos with someone you have yet to meet in person.