Online Romance Scams: How They Work and What You Can Do to Prevent Them

Category Technology

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In the Netflix documentary "The Tinder Swindler", victims exposed notorious con artist Simon Leviev, who posed as a wealthy diamond mogul to deceive and scam numerous women out of millions of dollars. Online romance scams are carefully planned schemes that follow distinct stages, such as bait and groom, build trust and request money transfers. What can people do to protect themselves? It is important to understand potential red flags, never share sensitive information, use a virtual private network and report scams immediately to law enforcement and the FTC.

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In the Netflix documentary "The Tinder Swindler," victims exposed notorious con artist Simon Leviev, who posed as a wealthy diamond mogul on the popular dating app Tinder to deceive and scam numerous women out of millions of dollars. Leviev is a flashy example of a dating scammer, but criminal operations also prey on emotionally vulnerable people to gain their trust and exploit them financially.

The internet has revolutionized dating, and there has been a surge in U.S. adults using apps to find ideal matches post-pandemic. While these apps offer convenience for connecting with romantic partners, they also open the door to online romance scams. Criminals create both deceptive profiles and urgent scenarios to carry out the scam.

Victims of online romance scams have lost an estimated US$1.3 billion in 2022 alone

The Federal Trade Commission reports that nearly 70,000 Americans fell victim to online romantic scams in 2022, with reported losses topping US$1.3 billion.

Online romance scams exploit people through calculated online social engineering and deliberately deceptive communication tactics. In a series of research projects, my colleagues from Georgia State University, University of Alabama, University of South Florida and I focused on understanding how scammers operate, the cues that may prompt changes in their tactics and what measures people can take to defend themselves against falling victim to this scam.

The most common type of online relationship scam involves financial exploitation

How online romantic scams work .

Online romance scams are not coincidental. They’re carefully planned schemes that follow distinct stages. Research has identified five stages: .

1. Bait and groom: Scammers approach victims, build rapport and exploit their emotions.

2. Establish trust: Here, scammers create an emotional connection with the victims while manipulating them with lies and feigned affections.

3. Build dependence : After affective ties are forged, scammers manipulate victims and prompt them to make financial investments by creating stories of urgent needs or demise.

The most common scammer tactic involved in a romance scam is the creation of a false, urgent situation

4. Request money transfers: Scammers move into the “request for payment” phase, make transaction demands and establish contact networks.

5. Move on: When scamming tactics are exhausted, or when scammers identify better potential victims, they terminate contact.

In short, scammers do not swindle victims by chance. They plan their actions in advance, patiently following their playbooks to ensure profitable outcomes. Scammers worm their way into a victim’s heart to gain access to their money through false pretenses.

The FTC has a website devoted to helping individuals differentiate between online imposter scams and genuine relationships

In a previous study, my colleague Volkan Topalli and I analyzed victim testimonials from the website Our research revealed scammers’ use of various social engineering techniques and crisis stories to prompt urgent requests. Scammers leveraged social norms, guilt and supposed emergencies to manipulate victims. Scammers also paid close attention to communication patterns and adapted their tactics based on victims’ responses. This interplay significantly influenced the overall operation of the scam.

The U.S. government is not allowed to intervene in foreign romance scams

Across the globe, online romance scammers use different techniques that vary across cultures to successfully defraud victims. In my recent research, for example, I looked closely into an online romance scam in China called "Sha Zhu Pan," which loosely translates to "Pig Butchering Scam." In Sha Zhu Pan, scammers bait and groom victims for financial exploitation through well-structured group setups. Multiple scammers across four groups – hosts, resources, IT and money laundering – persuade victims through romantic tactics to invest in fake apps or use fake gambling websites, convincing them to pay more and more without ever receiving their money back. Hosts interact with victims, resources members identify targets and collect information about them, IT creates the fake apps and websites, and the money launderers process the ill-gotten gains.

Seniors are disproportionately targeted by online romance scams

Detection, defense and legal measures .

What can people do to protect themselves from online romance scams? .

The simplest way to prevent falling prey to scams is to be mindful of potential red flags. Scammers are unable to meet their victims in person and their stories often sound too good to be true. Victims should never share sensitive personal or financial information over the internet, and should exercise caution when it comes to impulsive decisions. In addition, it is important to check if the other person is listed in public records and to protect their device and connection by using a virtual private network, strong passwords and two-factor authentication.

If victims fall prey to scams, it is essential to report it immediately to law enforcement and the FTC. The U.S. government is not allowed to intervene in foreign romance scams, though victims can join forces with other victims for collaborative efforts in pursuing legal action and recovering payments. It is also important to have an understanding of the context of online romantic scams, in order to provide evidence for legal proceedings.

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