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FRAUD WATCH

Elliott Greenblott: As Valentine's Day approaches, beware of catphishing scams

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Criminals use text messages, telephone calls and emails as their catphishing gear and, for the most part, anyone can be reeled in. 

It’s almost Valentine’s Day — love is in the air and the con artists are falling in love (with your money).

The FBI and the Federal Trade Commission report that hundreds of millions of dollars are lost in romance scams every year: in 2018 that figure was $143 million; 2019, $201 million; and in 2020, $304 million. In the first nine months of 2021, the amount was $342 million. Romance scamming is a growth industry!

These numbers only reflect the reports made to the FBI and FTC and do not include other federal agencies or state agencies. Beyond reported scams, many victims remained silent out of fear, embarrassment or disbelief. Romance scams, also called catphishing, impact all age groups. The median loss across all ages was $2,500, but the biggest losses fell to those between 50 to 70 years of age — nearly $10,000 per incident.

This crime has greater impacted because the past two years have likely been the loneliest for a significant part of the population. The current pandemic impacts everyone. According to recent surveys, people of all ages are feeling less connected, more stressed, anxious, lonely or depressed, but it take a greater toll on the elderly — less social interaction, more isolation, the deaths of friends and family members, and general boredom lead many to find companionship via the internet.

Social media such as Facebook, Instagram, or Google Hangouts have become gathering places for many. Dating websites have aggressively marketed their services and online chatrooms have ballooned in numbers to fill what many see as gaps in their lives. Enter the scammer.

Criminals may register in social media, chat groups, or even with dating websites. Romance scams generally do not happen overnight and may take several months to reach a critical point. During that “warm up” period, the scammer builds what, to the victim, seems like a sincere relationship sharing real or created personal stories, bolstered by fake credentials, and using stock photos that create believable profiles to lure their prey.

Con artists use geographic separation as a way to insulate themselves from direct contact by pretending to be in the military, employed in a remote location, or serving with a humanitarian agency in a third world country.

At the right moment, the scammer springs the trap by creating a hardship story: family illness, unreliable transportation, gambling debts, legal fees. It really doesn’t matter. The stories are endless and the message does not vary — send money! Given the time expended in building the relationship, the story is believed and the targeted person sends money. Some of the biggest dollar scams had criminals telling their targets that they sent — them money but now need much of it returned (a money laundering scheme?). Victims repeatedly send money to help their needy friend; someone they care about.

Combatting romance scams is difficult. The victim frequently defends the predator and refuses to listen to reason. Enlisting the assistance of a family member, close friend, clergyperson, or physician may be of some assistance but consider discussing the issue with local law enforcement as well. Telling people to stop online dating, particularly in the age of COVID, will not work. Education is often the best defense.

There are some dead giveaways to romance scams: requests for money often via gift cards, wire transfers, or e-cards; refusal to meet in person; attempts to move the relationship from “public” settings to private exchanges. The problem may likely be solved by a method stated on the website atlasvpn.com: don’t give money to anyone you have not met in person. Other tips:

  • Stop communicating if you believe you are dealing with a scammer.
  • Take things slowly; give yourself time to ask questions and check out answers.
  • Try a reverse image search on the internet to see if pictures you were sent are stock images or photos connected to another person.
  • Learn about romance scams at ftc.gov/romancescams or aarp.org/scams.

Finally, make a dent in this criminal activity. File a report with the Federal Trade Commission at ftc.gov or the FBI at Ic3.gov.

Questions or Comments? Email egreenblott@aarp.org.

Elliott Greenblott is a retired educator and coordinator of the AARP Vermont Fraud Watch Network. He hosts a CATV program, Mr. Scammer, distributed by GNAT-TV, Sunderland, Vt. www.gnat-tv.org

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