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5 Red flags of romance fraud to be aware of online

BY Jessica Barker

17th Apr 2024 Dating & Relationships

4 min read

5 Red flags of romance fraud to be aware of online
With romance fraud and scams on the rise in recent years, here’s how to spot the signs and avoid being a victim in the digital age
In the digital age, where connections and relationships often blossom online, the landscape of romance has transformed dramatically. However, this new era of digital courtship also brings with it risks, particularly from those looking to exploit the vulnerable for financial gain.
Romance scams have surged in recent years, leaving many victims in their wake. In 2022, nearly 70,000 Americans alone reported a romance scam, and reported losses hit $1.3 billion.
"Extending empathy to victims is vital, to remove the stigma and take this crime out of the shadows"
Unfortunately, these statistics are the tip of the iceberg. Many victims don’t know they’re being scammed, or they feel a misplaced sense of shame and don’t want to report the crime. Extending empathy to victims is vital, to remove the stigma and take this crime out of the shadows.
It is crucial to remember that the individuals behind these scams are often part of sophisticated criminal networks, skilled in manipulation and deception. Sometimes, they are forced into the work themselves, coerced and trained by ruthless gangs. Understanding and recognising the signs of a scam is your first line of defense against becoming a victim.

1. Love bombing

Smiling woman on laptop in a coffee shop
One of the most glaring initial red flags of a romance scam is "love bombing." This tactic involves lavishing someone with excessive adoration and attention early on in the relationship, often proclaiming love prematurely.
The goal? To manipulate the target into a state of emotional dependency, making them more susceptible to requests for money or personal information down the line.

2. Use of gifts

Another strategy employed by scammers involves the use of gifts. Initially, this may seem like a gesture of affection, but it's a calculated move to build trust and a sense of obligation. In some cases, scammers will claim to send a gift that gets “caught up in customs”, with the victim receiving emails (that look legitimate but really come from the scammers) requiring the victim to pay supposed fees to release it. This is just one of the ways criminals can financially exploit their targets in romance fraud.
"Asking for your birthday and address to send a gift is actually to  glean your personal information"
Another layer to the use of gifts in romance scams is to harvest the personal details of victims. The criminals—posing as your love interest—will ask for your birthday and address, to be able to send you a birthday gift. What they are really doing is gleaning personal information from you, to use in identity fraud.

3. Use of pet names

Person on a laptop
The use of pet names is a third red flag to be alert to. If a new online love interest consistently refers to you by generic endearments rather than your name, it could be a strategy to avoid mixing up multiple targets at once.
This approach, which also feeds into the love bombing, is a subtle yet telling sign of a scam.

4. Avoidance of face-to-face meetings or video calls

Another classic sign of a romance scam is the perpetrator's avoidance of face-to-face meetings or video calls, often accompanied by a plethora of excuses (although we need to be aware that this is changing, at least for video and phone calls, with artificial intelligence tools that increasingly allow criminals to impersonate other faces and voices).
Whether claiming to be in a secret military location or lamenting financial barriers to travel, these fabrications serve to maintain the illusion while avoiding exposure. Many victims find themselves transferring funds to their online love interest to fund airfare so that they can meet, only to wait at the airport and find themselves broken-hearted.

5. Financial manipulation and asking for money

Man shocked looking at his mobile phone and holding his credit card
Financial manipulation is the cornerstone of romance scams. Experienced scammers will bide their time, cultivating what feels like a genuine relationship before ever mentioning money. The requests might come under the guise of wanting to visit but lacking the funds for travel, needing help with medical bills, or having a lucrative investment opportunity they want to share with you.
"Scammers may not ask for the money directly, putting their victims in a position where they offer it"
The scammers may not ask for the money directly, rather putting their victims into a position where they find themselves offering it. They even point their victims to cryptocurrency “investment” websites that look legitimate, but are actually operated by the criminals themselves.

Emotional and financial impact

The emotional and financial toll of being victimised by a romance scam can be devastating. People describe experiencing a loss akin to grief, with a relationship that has not just ended but in fact never existed in the first place, no matter how real the criminals made it feel. To compound this, there can be deep financial losses and identity fraud.
It’s essential to remember that seeking connections and trusting others does not make one foolish; it makes us human. Scammers prey on these very human traits, using increasingly sophisticated methods, including artificial intelligence, to enhance their deception.
If you ever find yourself questioning the authenticity of an online connection, or if the warning signs listed resonate with your experience, it's important to confide in someone you trust. There's no shame in being the victim of these schemes, but silence is often the scammer's greatest ally. By raising awareness and reporting these incidents, we not only protect ourselves but also help safeguard others in the digital dating world. Awareness and communication are key defenses in the fight against online romance scams.
Jessica Barker is the author of Hacked: The Secrets Behind Cyber Attacks, published by Kogan Page
Banner: Financial manipulation is at the core of all romance fraud and scams. Credit: Mikhail Nilov
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