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From Facebook friend to romance scammer: Older Americans increasingly targeted amid COVID pandemic

·6 min read

Do you know the cost of love? OK, true love's cost may be immeasurable, but the cost of romance scams totaled at least $304 million in 2020.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg, says the Federal Trade Commission, because many victims of romance scams are embarrassed to come forward.

One woman who did, Kate Kleinert, a widow in Pennsylvania, told the Senate Special Committee on Aging last month how she got caught up in a romance scam that cost her about $39,000 – and her pride.

After getting a friend request on Facebook in August 2020 from a man, Kleinert began corresponding with him on another app. "Tony" said he was working in Iraq on a contract with the United Nations and after he asked, she sent gift cards to him and his children.

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He planned to meet her in Philadelphia in December but didn't show. Then someone purporting to be Tony's lawyer called saying he needed $20,000 for Tony's bail. "The lawyer told me to do whatever I could – put a mortgage on my house, borrow it from someone in my family," she testified. "I couldn't do it."

Eventually, "I was living off my credit cards and he was getting what I took from Social Security and my pension," she said.

Kleinert, who eventually learned the pictures sent by Tony were of a doctor in Spain, said she testified over frustration at an inability to get justice and "it's so devastating and many people have been through this but not spoken about it."

Romance scams continue to climb, and over the last three years people have reported losing more money on them than any other fraud reported to the Federal Trade Commission. These scams, typically run on dating apps and over social media, increased among all age groups with losses of $304 million, up about 50% from 2019, the FTC says.

Age is just a number to romance scammers, who bilked older adults (aged 60-up) out of more than $139 million during 2020. That's 65% more than in 2019, when reported losses were nearly $84 million, finds "Protecting Older Consumers, 2020-2021, A Report of the Federal Trade Commission," released earlier this week.

Among all scams the FTC tracks, romance scams made up the highest reported losses for those aged 60-79. And those aged 70 and older reported the highest median losses from romance scams: $9,475.80.

Opportunities for romance scammers have risen during the pandemic as older adults spent more time on social media. "It doesn't always mean they're looking for love, it's that they just report that the scammer starts with an unexpected friend request or a message," said Patti Poss, a senior attorney in the FTC's consumer protection bureau.

"Scammers are very sophisticated. And no one should be embarrassed that this happened," she said. "They know what they're doing, to be able to tell these stories, develop a relationship and get people's money. You may not think you're sending something to a stranger because it is somebody that you think you know at that point."

Romance scammers: How to spot them

Know where scammers lurk. Romance scammers typically create fake profiles on dating sites and apps such as Ashley Madison, Grindr, Match and Tinder. They also target users on Instagram and Facebook, the FTC says. AARP even chronicled a case where a 75-year-old woman was conned out of about $137,000 by a romance scammer she met on Words With Friends.

Scammers live where and do what? Some signs your online paramour isn't all they propose to be include the claim that they reside outside the U.S. or are working on an oil rig, with the military, or are a doctor with an international organization.

They want to get personal – to a point. A scammer will want to connect with you off the dating site, perhaps by email, phone or text. But they don't necessarily want to meet in person.

Scammers eventually ask for money. After they build trust with their potential victims – to do so they may connect online several times a day, the FTC says – they may ask for money to help with an emergency such as travel, medical care or other expenses. In payment, they may ask for money to be sent by wire transfer using Western Union or MoneyGram. Bank transfers and payments accounted for nearly one-third of reported romance scam losses by older adults at $31 million, and romance scammers reportedly took another $12 million in cryptocurrency.

Credit card or gift card scams.
Credit card or gift card scams.

Many romance fraud victims said scammers used the coronavirus pandemic to explain requests for money or their inability to meet in person, the FTC says. Older adults reported losses of $10.5 million on romance scams related to COVID-19.

Cryptocurrency could come into play. The FBI has seen an increase in crimes where the romance scammer seeks to help you invest in or trade cryptocurrency. Once signed up, the victim may be able to withdraw some funds, as a sign of trust. But as bigger investments are urged – often you have to act fast, they say – all communication might break off.

The Senate Aging Committee has a report on scams targeting seniors including romance scams on its website.

FTC tips on dealing with romance scammers

Stop talking. If you think you may be dealing with a romance scammer stop communicating with them immediately.

Don't give out personal information. Don't discuss your financial status to those you don't know or cannot trust. Do not give anyone your banking information, Social Security Number, copies of your ID or passport, or any other sensitive data.

Money changes everything. Never send funds to or trust investments suggested by someone you have solely met online.

Ask a friend or family member. Talk through the situation with someone you trust and listen to them.

Do some homework. Use Google or another search engine to see if other people have reported such scammers. For instance, type in "oil rig scammer." You can also use the person's photo on Google Image. Select search by image (click the little camera) and upload the person's photo. If it appears under several names, they are likely a scammer.

Report them. You can report scammers to the FTC at ReportFraud.ftc.gov. Also notify the website or app where you connected with the scammer.

Gimme my money. If you paid a scammer with a gift card, contact the card issuer and tell them the situation and ask for a refund.

Other scams: prizes and imposters

Older adults also lost $69 million in 2020 from prize, sweepstakes and lottery scams (this was the top fraud reported by adults 80 and over), according to FTC's Consumer Sentinel Network, a database of fraud reports filed directly by consumers and to local, state and federal law enforcement agencies. Business imposter scams increased from $34 million in 2019 to $65 million in 2020. Government imposter scams amounted to $58 million.

Follow Mike Snider on Twitter: @MikeSnider.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Dating scams in 2020 cost $300 million, targeted older Americans: FTC

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