How to protect yourself and loved ones from vulnerability scams
Strong emotions are powerful motivators. When we please someone we love, the brain releases dopamine, which makes us euphoric, boosts our energy and increases our focus. It can also make us vulnerable to scam artists.
According to the Federal Trade Commission Consumer Protection Data Spotlight, February 2023, nearly 70,000 people reported losses from romance scams totaling $1.3 billion in 2022. Betrayal and financial loss are not the only risks of these scams. Victims can be made complicit in crimes such as theft and money laundering. Shame in being swindled often keeps victims quiet.
Fortunately, many scammers take predictable, calculated steps to gain trust and avoid detection. By learning common tactics and protection tips, you can identify questionable behavior before “head-over-heels” becomes “in-over-your-head.” (Feel free to pass these tips along to your customers, clients or members.)
Identify the tactics
While dating apps remain the most common channel for romance scams, direct messages on social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram are on the rise.
- Catfishing: This con involves presenting a highly appealing but fake persona. Examples include using photographs of other people (usually models in exotic locales) and falsifying basic biographical information like age, occupation, location, education and interests. When reaching out to a target, a catfish will use details on a profile to make false connections and get closer.
- Unavailability: There are legitimate jobs – like military service, offshore oil rig work and consultancy in a foreign market – that make it difficult to meet in person. By impersonating these workers, a fraudster can make logical excuses for being chronically unavailable. Other lies to delay meeting include caring for a sick relative or living in a remote area. A scammer will often avoid requests for FaceTime or video conferencing by citing connectivity issues or unavoidable restrictions. Promises to meet are often thwarted by last-minute excuses.
- Love bombing: Intense flattery and claims of profound emotional connection are used to escalate the relationship. These cons are good listeners and do not hold back on compliments. Their promises of unconditional love and selfless support seem too good to be true.
Recognize the request
At the heart of a romance scam is a request for money. It can take many forms, but the motivation is the same – to persuade you to send them untraceable funds such as cash, money orders, gift cards, money transfer apps or cryptocurrency.
- Minor but escalating: It often starts with a small request. They say their employer has paid them in money orders they can’t easily cash. Or they’ve won an extravagant gift they want to send you but need funds to cover customs. They’ll send a check for you to deposit and give them the funds. (These checks often bounce, leaving you to pay bank fees.) Over time, a scammer may offer to visit but need you to help with the cost of a plane ticket that they’ll repay when they see you.
- Urgent: The scammer will send a frantic message containing a plea to help pay for a medical emergency, unexpected legal situation, or to help meet an important deadline. They are hoping that your heightened emotion in the face of a crisis will either appeal to your willingness to help or override any hesitation.
- Investment opportunity: The rise of cryptocurrency has led to scams where the pursuer claims to be a savvy investor in a budding field. Instead of asking for cash, the perpetrator invites you to “invest.” They may even point you to (fraudulent) websites to provide overview education. But once an “investment” is made, the scammer denies access to the account and disappears.
- Threat: If any of the above tactics are unsuccessful, a scammer might threaten to release any explicit photos they have of you unless you comply. This is called sextortion and is more likely to impact those aged 18-29. According to the FTC, these kinds of threats have increased eightfold since 2019.