Romance scammers are bilking Americans out of $1.3 billion a year
How digital grifters are bilking the lonely out of $1.3 billion a year
Kate Kleinert was home by herself one day in summer 2020 when she received a friend request from an attractive stranger on Facebook. He introduced himself as Tony, a Norwegian physician stationed in Iraq.
Kate, who is 69, often received friend requests from single men. They usually fell in the same category: handsome, successful, and stationed in another country. "I never accepted those friend requests," she told me, "but there was something about this one. I don't know if it was the mood I was in that day, or what." She decided to accept Tony's friend request.
"I had been widowed at that point for 12 years and had never looked for another romance," she told me. "My heart was still married to my husband. I never went on dating sites. I never went out to clubs or bars looking for someone, but this man arrived in my living room."
Over the next couple of months, Kate became swept up in what she thought was a whirlwind romance. Tony would message her daily, sending pictures of himself and sharing stories about his two children and his wife who he said died of leukemia. Before long, he was professing how much he loved Kate, asking her to look at houses for them to eventually move into together and check out schools for the children. "I really looked forward to someone saying to me, 'How was your day, honey?' I hadn't heard that in many years, so I'd forgotten how good it felt to have someone, anyone really, to talk to — but a man to talk to was especially nice," she told me.
When Tony began to ask for money, it was initially for help with his daughter's expenses. Not having children of her own, Kate was thrilled at the chance to adopt a motherly role — and Tony assured her she would be paid back when they all were finally together at Christmas. Bypassing her initial doubts, she began sending money in the form of gift cards to help with various "emergencies," and by December 2020, she had sent $39,000. But the fairy-tale romance wouldn't last.
A lover left in the lurch is a tale as old as time. But as the pandemic's isolation has sent more people online in search of companionship, the stakes have grown. According to the US Federal Trade Commission, the combination of pandemic isolation, online dating, and cryptocurrencies have spawned "a combustible combination for fraud." Americans lost $1.3 billion to romance scams last year — an 164% increase from 2019 — and $3.3 billion in total since the start of the pandemic. And according to the experts I talked to, the country's ongoing loneliness crisis has created the perfect opportunity for swindlers to strike.
"They really invest in developing a relationship," Stacey Wood, a forensic neuropsychology expert, said about the scammers. "It may be six months before they ask for money. That's a commitment."
A passionless crime
Ever since the dawn of relationships, scammers have found ways to take advantage of people by spinning a convincing tale. But with the rise in online dating, these scams have proliferated, evolving into more sophisticated long cons to win the trust of victims. According to the FTC report, the most popular way scammers reached out to their victims last year was through Instagram (29%) and Facebook (28%).
And as these schemes get more widespread and more complex, the number of people falling for romance scams keeps growing. Last year, 70,000 people reported they were a victim of a romance scam, with a median loss of $4,400. And that may just be the tip of the iceberg — the FTC notes that because the vast majority of scams aren't reported to the government, "these figures reflect just a small fraction of the public harm."
One theory for the boom? The pandemic. Wood told me that while the COVID-19 lockdowns were not the sole factor for the increase, it certainly accelerated the problem. "Advances in technology, advances in crypto technology, having people isolated from third parties that might have been able to intervene, and less opportunity for affection all came together in a perfect storm," she said. People had a good excuse for not wanting to meet in person, and millions of people were more isolated than ever.
The day Kate and Tony were finally due to meet, Kate got her hair and nails done and waited by the phone. Hours after Tony was supposed to land at the local airport, there was still no word. Eventually, she received a call from someone who claimed to be Tony's lawyer. Tony had run into legal trouble at the airport and needed bail money, the person said. After a flurry of calls over the next few days from both Tony and the lawyer trying to convince Kate to sell her car, cash in her life insurance policy, put another mortgage on her house, or ask a relative for money, Kate started to get suspicious. Tony was supposed to be in jail — how was he making this many phone calls?
"I knew then, and it was like a bomb had gone off in my heart," she said. "This was not real."
The nearly $40,000 that Kate had sent Tony had devoured her savings, her late husband's life insurance, her pension, and her income from Social Security. But more tragically, it left her heartbroken. "Losing the money — that was devastating. But losing that love and the thought of that family that we had? That's what crushed me," Kate said.
An epidemic of loneliness
While the pandemic certainly added more fuel to the fire, America's long-simmering loneliness problem has facilitated financial scammers for years. Looking back to 2018, a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that one in five Americans said they always or often felt lonely or socially isolated, and among teenagers and young adults, reported loneliness nearly doubled in prevalence between 2012 and 2018.
Wood told me that loneliness is a pretty consistent factor across different types of scams. "Psychological validation is a human need and these scammers do a lot of validation," she said. The scammers' tactics keep "people engaged and rewards behavior that is compliant with their requests and punishes behavior that's not. It's terrible but it's effective."
And while the "loneliness epidemic" has been building for years, the pandemic turbocharged the problem. A recent Harvard survey of American adults found that 43% of young adults reported increases in loneliness since the outbreak of the COVID crisis. The survey also found that about half of lonely young adults reported that no one in the past few weeks had "taken more than just a few minutes" to ask how they are doing in a way that made them feel like the person "genuinely cared." Even now that the world has opened back up, virtual chats and video meetups have become an established part of dating culture, leaving the door open for swindlers.
According to a survey conducted in 2022 by the UK financial company Nationwide Building Society, 82% of people had experienced bouts of loneliness or social isolation at some point, and 20% felt lonely on a daily basis. Among those who have felt lonely, 29% said they felt more vulnerable to a romance scam. And 17% of people who frequently felt lonely or socially isolated said they would keep talking to someone even if they were suspicious of their motives.
"Anybody can be victimized," Wood said, but added that "psychological vulnerabilities, in particular depression and anxiety, can increase the risk for financial exploitation."
The surge in loneliness is going to make these scams more likely, Wood said. "You can give practical advice, like make sure you meet someone in person before you give any money, etc., but I think there needs to be more structural interventions," she told me. "This is a growing problem that we need to actively change what we're doing to solve."
Confluence of crypto and romance
If loneliness was the reason "why" for the soaring number of romance scams, then crypto is the "how." Based on the reports filed with the FTC, the No. 1 payment method for romance scams last year was cryptocurrency. Crypto scams start in a similar way to other romance scams, but instead of asking for gift cards or wired money, the scammer convinces the victim to invest in cryptocurrency. In what's known as "pig butchering," the victim is tricked into investing ever-larger sums in fake currencies controlled by the scammer (the pig is fattened). Then the scammer cuts contact and absconds with the cash (the pig is butchered).
"When I first saw Ren, he was very attractive, tall, fit, and really educated and successful," Sarrah Rose told Insider reporter Doree Lewak. She met him through a dating app, where he explained that one of his hobbies was trading cryptocurrency. He offered Sarrah advice on making trades with the crypto-trading app Coinbase.
"He was having me move my money into an unregulated wallet that I wouldn't be able to get back," Rose said. "He tried to convince me that it was connected to Coinbase — considered a safe and established platform — so I would be fine. I didn't believe him."
On day two, he sent her a screenshot of his crypto portfolio supposedly showing $5.5 million, with $150,000 in daily gains. Ren told Rose he was planning to make a trade and invited her to join him as a "way to get closer to one another."
"You can try doing cryptocurrencies. That way, we might also have a common interest by doing something together," he wrote in a text seen by Insider. "It's a way for me to show my self-worth. If you trust me, I'll be happy," he added, while walking her through a transfer of funds to her Coinbase account. Because the crypto market was trending down, he said it was a "very good opportunity" to invest.
"He refused to meet me in person but wanted to act like a boyfriend and expected me to trust him as a girlfriend would," Rose said.
Though Rose was quickly wise to the scam, others haven't been as fortunate. In February, a woman from Tennessee shared that she had been scammed out of nearly $400,000 by a fraudster she met on the dating app Hinge. Nicole Hutchinson, a 24-year-old who, like Rose, had little knowledge of cryptocurrency, was contacted on Hinge with an investment opportunity. Unaware that the digital wallets she was instructed to transfer money to were controlled by her scammer, she ultimately lost both her own and her father's life savings.
CipherBlade, a cryptocurrency investigative-analysis firm, estimates that worldwide losses from pig-butchering scams were in the "tens of billions" of dollars in 2021 alone, adding that the presumed losses are "incredibly high."
Both crypto and non-crypto romance scams can be devastating to victims, but to make matters worse, once someone falls for a scam, they are more likely to be preyed upon again. After contacting AARP for help with her case, Kate was warned to be vigilant. She was told she was now on a green list that had been sold around the world with scammers spotlighting her as an easy target.
No easy solutions
While the FBI website offers advice like "be careful what you post and make public online" and "research the person's photo and profile using online searches" to avoid scams, Wood would like to see more social-media platforms step in. She said that platforms could flag suspicious transactions and allow social workers or behavioral-health experts to intervene and hopefully limit the financial and emotional damage. Kate also said that educational commercials targeted at seniors would help expose people to these kinds of scams. "If we could see more about scams and how they're run, people would accept the fact that this is a danger and we need to do more against it," she said.
A year after losing all her money to Tony's scam, Kate's house caught fire, destroying all her possessions, killing her dogs, and nearly taking her life. When a GoFundMe page was set up by a friend to help, Tony got back in contact.
"It scared me because I knew he was watching me," she told me. "He's waiting for another opportunity. But I think I've learned a lot since then. I'm not nearly as vulnerable."
Eve Upton-Clark is a features writer covering culture and society.
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