Happy Valentine's Day ... But How Many People are Scammed by Romance?

Just in time for Valentine’s Day, the Federal Trade Commission released a Data Spotlight with the headline: “Romance scams rank number one on total reported losses.”

The median financial loss among the persons who reported a romance scam to the FTC in 2018 was $2,600, about seven times higher than the median loss for all other types of fraud. The FTC reports that the 21,000 romance scam victims lost a total of $144 million in 2018, a huge increase over the 2015 statistics of 8,500 romance scam reports with total loss $33 million.

Romance scammers prey on persons looking for love. Of course, this is not a new phenomenon. There have always been cases where a fraudster pretends romantic involvement and then absconds with the victim’s money. A particularly famous case of romance fraud and murder occurred in the 1940s, when the “lonely hearts killers” Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck targeted affluent widows. He romanced (and sometimes married) women who had placed lonely hearts ads in the newspaper. The 1970 movie The Honeymoon Killers featured Beck’s and Fernandez’s story.

But with the internet, perpetrating a romance scam is easier than ever before. Today’s scammers typically contact their victims online, establish rapport through a dating app or social media, then present a story for why they desperately need money (often a medical emergency or a misfortune that occurred while traveling). Many scammers pretend to be in the military, using their “foreign posting” as the reason they cannot meet in person.

But were there only 21,000 victims of romance fraud in 2018? It is likely that the true number is much higher, because many people do not report the scam to the FTC or other authority. Also, many victims may be unaware they are being scammed and continue to wire money to the fraudster.

The FBI also collects data on romance scams; in 2016, the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center received nearly 15,000 complaints of romance fraud with total financial losses exceeding $230 million. We do not know how many of these complaints were also filed with the FTC.

And many victims do not report the crimes to the FTC or FBI. In 2017, the Bureau of Justice Statistics collected data on fraud in a supplement to the National Crime Victimization Survey; these results, when released, should provide information on how many romance fraud victims did not report the crime to anyone. But of course these statistics, too, will not include the scam victims who think they are in a legitimate relationship.

If you know someone who may be a victim of romance fraud, encourage him or her to report the crime and contribute to more accurate statistics. Romance and other types of scams can be reported to the FTC at FTC.gov/complaint or to the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center at www.ic3.gov.

Copyright (c) 2019 Sharon L. Lohr