Romance Fraud: Love, Lies, and Billions Lost

April 6, 2022
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Fraud: The New Language of Love

Falling in love, for most people, can be the most exhilarating feeling in the world. But love also asks a lot of us, requiring the needs of others to be put before our own—a task that takes commitment, courage, and sometimes hardest of all: vulnerability. 

But what if someone abused that vulnerability? What if they exploited your most private affairs for their own ill-gotten gain? And what if you were more than willing to go along with it, to open your heart—and wallet—at the slightest glimmer of genuine connection, attention, and companionship?

Well, for one: you would not be alone.

Last year saw 56,000 new reports of romance scams.¹ And the crime wave has already cost victims and financial institutions billions. In fact, in 2021 alone, romance fraud accounted for $547 million in losses²—the highest ever recorded.

So, what can we learn from the thousands of victims who’ve already fallen prey to these scammers, and why should we care?

Romance Fraud Stats from Unit21

Meet the Exs of Romance Fraud

Before we get into the five common types of romance fraud, let’s look at what makes a person vulnerable to being defrauded, how the pandemic has played a role in the skyrocketing rates of romance-related financial crimes, and what kind of impact romance fraud has beyond the individual.

Friends, Family, and Neighbors

You might think, “It’s their fault they were gullible enough to fall for it.” But stories like those portrayed in Netflix’s Tinder Swindler are good for more than our daily dose of rubbernecking or schadenfreude.

They also raise important questions for self-reflection: How much do we fault romance fraud victims for falling for seemingly absurd requests? (“I love you. Please take out this $30,000 personal line of credit and wire the cash to me, baby. I love you to the moon, baby.”) Can we fault them at all? Would I have fallen for the same? Why does society not do more to keep scum like Simon Leviev off our streets—and out of our DMs?

Well-adjusted, social people are, by nature, more susceptible to romance fraud than many of us think. That’s because victims aren’t just “gullible” or “naive.” Instead, they are often the type of people we hold in high esteem.

When you think of the personality traits that might make a victim vulnerable, think of friendly neighbors, law-abiding citizens who respect authority³, generous empathetic folks who don’t mind helping those less fortunate, and cooperative team players who are easy to get along with—and who often make life a joy at work and beyond. 

Swiping (F)right in a Post-Pandemic World

As with most things these days, the conversation surrounding romance fraud wouldn’t be complete without examining the impact of the 2020 pandemic. As people were forced into isolation, scammers got to work on dating apps—exploiting a world of lonely people craving connection. 

So many fraudsters got to work, in fact, that 1 in 7 dating profiles are now fake or scam accounts. 

Relationship Psychologist Sam Owen explains how this created the perfect storm of victim vulnerability and opportunity for scammers: “The past two years left people craving human connection, especially if they’d been living alone and feeling lonely while the rest of the world seemed coupled-up. Sadly it was the perfect storm that would inevitably result in a significant increase in digital fraud cases.” ⁴

The result of all this loneliness and exploitation? Rates of romance fraud are now up 91% compared to pre-pandemic levels.⁴

One Expensive Fling

The aftermath of romance fraud can be bleak: victims can lose friends and family over their decisions to funnel money to a stranger they’ve never met. (“Have you ever met this in person in real life?”). They can also suffer embarrassment, shock, anger, anxiety, stress, fear, and depression.⁵ 

The impact on the financial sector is also staggering. From 2016 to 2021, romance fraud victims lost $1.3 billion—more than any other FTC fraud category². That sort of loss can have a real business impact, as banks are left footing the bill after the scammers vanish from dating apps and disappear into cyberspace. For instance, Lloyds TSB Bank refunded 97% of all bank fraud cases under its Fraud Refund Guarantee.⁴

With that sort of liability, it’s no wonder banks, lenders, and fintechs are investing in fraud monitoring and prevention services such as Unit21 to better keep tabs on abnormal or suspicious customer behavior

Cupid’s Arrow or Crime Funding Scheme?

Sure, romance scammers can swindle banks and individuals out of their money. But why should the world care? Aren’t fintech entities structured to handle that kind of liability? After all, that’s the cost of doing business in these tumultuous times.

Well, yes and no.

While having a robust risk strategy can help financial institutions better mitigate these needless losses and thereby protect their consumers, the ethical problem is not so much that the money is gone as it is where the money ends up going.

Who would’ve thought that a brief Tinder interaction would’ve led so many to unknowingly help launder money to fund human trafficking, illegal drug trade, and even terrorism?⁶ Banks have Anti-money laundering (AML) monitoring systems in place, but more can be done. In fact, financial organizations that lack compliance and due diligence were fined an astounding $2.7 billion in 2021.

So really, romance fraud is something everyone should be concerned about. And something that should give financial institutions pause when considering their overall risk management strategy

The 5 Most Common Rom Cons

Romance fraud can come in various forms. But the story always follows the same core tenets: Online messaging, no face-to-face communication ever, scammers asking for absurd amounts of money with “urgent” timelines, and the whole affair ending without any semblance of the entire premise it was all built on: love. 

Scam #1: Crypto Investing Opportunities

Imagine you’re chatting with a new romantic interest on a dating app. You discuss hobbies, dislikes, and ambitions, and then suddenly, the other person asks if you could switch the conversation over to an encrypted chat app like WhatsApp or Telegram. 

Sure, okay. You move the flirting over to a new forum. Let’s see where things go from here. Maybe this is their preferred way to communicate. No big deal. 

Then, as you try to continue the conversation with a comment about your favorite travel spots, the person starts to offer financial advice. “I have an investment opportunity for u.” This seems odd, you might think. But you’re a good sport. So you keep chatting.

Scammer: “I have a big opportunity for you, bb”
You: “What kind of opportunity?”
Scammer: “I am launching new coin 4 meta vurse”
You: “What do you mean?”
Scammer: “Like bitcoin, it will be big. Big, bb. U should invest now so u can make so much money.”
You: “Hmm. That sounds sort of shady, like I’ll never get my money back.”
Scammer: “No no. no scam wit me bb. I wan take u paris like u dream. I-full tower your fav place ya?”

Real or not. Conversations like these happen online all the time, and the IRL consequences are about as you’d expect: Romance scams involving cryptocurrency lost victims $139 million in 2021 alone.²

Scam #2: Money Mules

Movies would have us think money laundering is complicated. So you’d have to be an experienced criminal to even participate in it, right? Wrong. Romance fraud victims are often used as “money mules,” becoming entangled in a complicated web spun with a combo of cupid’s arrows and wire transfers. 

A common way this unfolds goes something like this: The scammer explains that they need to move a large amount of money fast for some vague reason. Perhaps their boss only pays them in postal money orders, which they can’t cash. Or this stranger, whom you’ve just met, wants to help you pay for rent generously. 

With money orders, the scammer will implore you to cash forged money orders, then wire that money back to the scammer. But then the bank eventually flags the fraudulent money order, reverses the transaction, but not the wire transfer, leaving the victim on the hook and potentially liable to criminal prosecution.⁷ 

With the rent scheme, they say they’ll send you more than you need, then you withdraw the remaining cash and deliver it to someone else—a situation a woman found herself in when she was instructed to deposit a $5,000 cashier’s check, pay rent, then funnel the remainder to another stranger whom she’d also never met.⁶

Scam #3: Military Romance 

Scammers have no respect.

So it’s no surprise that they will try to squeeze money out of widowed military spouses or those dating active service members. They do this by impersonating the likeness of real soldiers or creating fake profiles using someone else’s photos. And just as things are heating up between the scammer and the victim, the “soldier” suddenly has to leave on deployment.

Then the cash requests start funneling in. They need money to fly home to see their family, for internet access on base, or supplements for military medical coverage—all requested under the guise of seemingly impressive-sounding military jargon, ranks, base locations, and more.

Before the victim becomes wise to the scam, they could be years into the “relationship” and thousands upon thousands in debt to try and support their so-called lover.

Military romance fraud is so common, in fact, that the US military has fact sheets to raise awareness of the issue.⁸

Scam #4: Intimate Videos

This scam not only involves romance fraud but blackmail. First, the scammer will entice the victim to hop on a video call.

But wait!

Their camera isn’t working for some reason. However, they push the interaction forward with flattery and sweet nothings, encouraging the victim to reveal themselves in intimate ways. 

Then, they drop the bomb. They recorded the entire interaction. And if the victim doesn’t pay, they’re going to publish the video and send it to all friends, family, coworkers, etc. An actual nightmare.

Scam #5: “I need money now!”

There’s nothing you wouldn’t do for your partner when you’re in love. So it should come as no surprise that romance fraud victims often fall prey to “urgent” money requests.

The scammer will say there’s an emergency in their family and they have to fly home. They’ll pay you back later, they swear. Or they need to pay for a passport because they’re stranded in some foreign country.

Or…or…

The laundry list of reasons why someone would ask for money is longer than any of us would care to read. But scammers seem to have no shortage of ideas on how to socially engineer their victims, conning them into paying exorbitant amounts of money over a ludicrously short period of time.

What You Can Do for Your Customers

Now that you’re a bit more familiar with the ways romance scammers work and how drastic their impact can be on both individuals and financial institutions, it’s essential to assess what you and your organization can do to help people from becoming another drop in the bucket of billions lost to romance schemes. 

  • Use systems for suspicious activity monitoring for fraud detection, Anti-Money Laundering (AML), and more to protect your customers. 
  • The face of fraud is changing quickly. Use a platform that can adjust just as quickly.
  • Look at more than transactions. Monitor various data points such as behaviors, including account switching, movements, and trends over time.   
  • Take quick action to report suspicious activity to the authorities such as the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN).  
  • Implement identity verification but continue monitoring changes in details around identity and transaction.

We are sympathetic to the plight of these people - but also the banks and financial platforms that suffer from it - adverse reports of a financial company can send its stock plummeting, putting jobs at risk. Likewise, romance fraud patterns can be detected to avoid heartbreak and financial loss. 

Unit21 is a fully customizable no-code platform for risk and compliance operations. We seamlessly integrate three products: identity verification, transaction and data monitoring, and case management.

Unit21’s customers include some of the most significant payment and digital banking platforms. With Unit21, risk and compliance teams – the domain experts – can create and iterate their own transaction monitoring rules and models on the fly without having to send them off to engineers. See how some of our customers are using our platform.

Download ACH Fraud eBook

Citations

  1. Reinicke, Carmen. “Online Daters Lost a Record $547 Million to Scams in 2021. How to Stay Safe, According to Nev Schulman from MTV’s ‘Catfish.’” CNBC, CNBC, 8 Mar. 2022, 
  2. Fletcher, Emma. “Reports of Romance Scams Hit Record Highs in 2021.” Consumer Protection, Federal Trade Commission, 10 Feb. 2022
  3. Whitty, Monica T. “Do You Love Me? Psychological Characteristics of Romance Scam Victims.” Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking,
  4. “TSB Reveals Alarming Details of Romance Fraud, Which Spiked by 91 Percent during the Pandemic.” Personal Banking
  5. Chuang, Jie-Yu. “Romance Scams: Romantic Imagery and Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation.” Frontiers in Psychiatry, vol. 12, 2021
  6. 3 Women Victimized By ‘Romance Scams’ Share Their Stories, NBC News, 21 June 2021
  7. Kaspersky. “Online Dating Scams and How to Avoid Them.” Www.kaspersky.com, 30 Mar. 2022, 

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