FRAUD SQUAD

Love, Lies and Deception: A Romance Scam

Monday, January 22nd, 2024

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With the rise of online dating and social media, millions of people flock to digital platforms to find love. But from behind the protection of a computer screen, scammers exploit the most vulnerable people seeking romance and relationships, ultimately leaving the unsuspecting victim with a broken heart and an empty bank account.

The Scam: With the rise of online dating and social media, millions of people flock to digital platforms to find love. But from behind the protection of a computer screen, scammers exploit the most vulnerable people seeking romance and relationships, ultimately leaving the unsuspecting victim with a broken heart and an empty bank account. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), nearly 70,000 cases of romance scams were reported, totaling a loss of $1.3 billion in 2022 alone.

Social media impersonation has become one of the most frequently used ways of perpetuating a romance scam, and it’s as easy as stealing a picture and personal information readily available on a public platform. The crime doesn’t end there – the fraudster then uses the stolen identity to create fake profiles and begins the hunt for the next victim for monetary gain. The criminal seeks out relationships through online platforms like dating apps or social media, earns the victim’s trust, and then, through various ways, gains access to their accounts or requests money. The most common method is to simply ask for money through wire transfers, gift cards, or cryptocurrency, but the FTC also reported sextortion or blackmail, account takeovers, and investment scams as other methods.

The Scheme: When Connie Rotolo (Oceanside, NY) lost her husband of 45 years in 2019, she found herself struggling to cope with unbearable grief and loneliness. Then, the pandemic hit in 2020, and the mandatory lockdown left her feeling more alone than ever. With the hope for a second chance at love and companionship, Rotolo turned to the popular dating site, Zoosk. The 67-year-old then created a profile on the dating app, but after just days of scrolling and swiping, she quickly found that she wasn’t suited for online dating. She abandoned her profile for a while but then unexpectedly received a message from a man who was supposedly a civil engineer working abroad and looking for a relationship. The man, who went by the name Andrew Deckert, claimed to also be from Long Island and began to shower Rotolo with messages of affection and adoration. Over the course of three months, they exchanged countless texts, where the charming conman would send her love letters and poems. The scammer promised her everything under the sun and beyond, and for a grieving, vulnerable widow, the relationship was “like a drug.” Although they had not met in person, the connection grew stronger through frequent communication, and at that point, Rotolo had completely fallen for the ruse.

It was at the three-month mark that “Andrew” began to confide in her about his dire `financial situation. The once romantic promises of a future filled with love and happiness soon turned into relentless requests for money. He even begged her to sell her house and send him the money. Rotolo initially ignored the requests but was alarmed by a terrifying text that compelled her to send the money. The fraudster claimed that his life and hers were in grave danger. He told her that she needed to send him money or else they would both be killed. “Andrew” then instructed her to wire money to five different companies in the United States. Within a month, Rotolo sent a total of $475,000 over five transactions – money that was left to her by her late husband.

She grew suspicious of “Andrew” and began to look into his profile and identity. Upon realizing she had fallen victim to a scam, she contacted the local police and hired a private investigator (PI). The scammer has continued to message Rotolo but what began as seemingly sincere promises to repay her soon became threats of violence when he realized she had contacted the authorities and was pursuing justice. The victim actually had to move from her home after an unknown man visited her at her house, warning her to stop the investigations. Rotolo has not yet recovered the money and currently works with a group online to warn others about the threat of romance scams.

Fraud Geek Explains

It’s heartbreaking to hear Ms. Rotolo’s story, but unfortunately, she is not alone. Many people fall victim to devastating romance scams, which have become increasingly common. According to the FTC, there’s been an 80% increase in romance scams since 2020. Rotolo’s experience is a classic example of a romance scam, and if she had been aware of the warning signs, she could have avoided it entirely.

Romance scams always begin with a fake profile created across social media platforms or dating sites. Scammers often steal pictures and personal details of real people online, so they seem legitimate. A potential victim who is suspicious of them could search for their online presence and find any publicly supplied information to confirm their identity – address, education, job, and other social media accounts which could reveal them as a scammer. Most people don’t even realize their identity is being used for these scams because although they are victims also, they aren’t the real target. The scammers carefully craft their online profiles to appear charming and trustworthy and use tactics such as flattery and emotional manipulation to gain their victim’s trust and exploit their vulnerabilities.

Anyone can fall victim to a romance scam, but the most common targets are women over the age of 50 who are recently widowed or divorced. These individuals tend to be more vulnerable to manipulation due to their emotional state and their desire for companionship. Individuals over the age of 50 are also less likely to be technologically savvy enough to do proper research to verify identity. Ms. Rotolo matched the typical victim profile for romance scams – she’s elderly and a recent widow, having joined Zoosk a mere 9 months after her husband’s death. Once a relationship has been established, the scammer will eventually ask for money, often by claiming to be in a dire financial situation or facing an emergency. They may ask for money to cover the cost of travel, medical bills, or other expenses. In some cases, they may threaten their victim with blackmail or violence if they do not comply with their demands.

So, how can people confidently pursue online dating without becoming a victim of romance scams?  To protect yourself from these scams, be aware of the following red flags:

  •  Beware “love bombing,” which is a manipulative tactic used by fraudsters to quickly establish a strong emotional connection with their potential victims. It involves showering the victim with excessive attention and affection to create a false sense of intimacy and trust. The fraudster will use flattery, promises of love and commitment, and a seemingly perfect personality to earn their trust and create the facade of a deep connection. The goal of love bombing is to make the victim feel special, wanted, and loved, so they let their guard down and become more accepting of the scammer’s requests for money or personal information. If the person is quick to profess their love and propose marriage – watch out, especially if you have never met in person.
  • They refuse to engage in video calls or meetings in person. Scammers avoid showing their face because it doesn’t match their profile and can be identified if caught. They make excuses not to video chat due to bad service or connectivity in their location and are never able to meet in person. With the emergence of AI, they will create deep-fake photos or videos that look real to fend off any suspicion when they “are not available” to meet live.
  • They are always traveling or out of the country. The pandemic created a golden opportunity because it was not possible to meet in person, and at that time romance scams exploded growing over 300%. Now that people are traveling again, they have to improvise. Fraudsters will often claim to be from the same hometown as their victim BUT are conveniently always out of the country or traveling for work. This makes meeting in person or speaking over video chat, difficult and provides a great excuse to avoid revealing their real identity. 
  • They want to text instead of messaging through the app. Many dating sites provide a level of protection through safety features. Be wary of anyone who immediately wants your phone number to continue communication. This goes for Facebook marketplace scams as well. If the platform offers a way to communicate without sharing your phone number, use it.
  • They ask a TON of questions or for personal information. Scammers are often after your personal information to commit account takeover fraud, which means they gain access to your accounts through stolen credentials. They know that people like talking about themselves, so they will ask a TON of questions. Be suspicious if they start weaving in specific or odd questions like the street name of your childhood home or the make/model of your first car. Many of those questions are used as security questions; some people even use them as passwords. They may also ask you to give them personal information like your social security number to verify your identity as though they are protecting themselves.
  • They pressure you to send intimate photos. Be wary of any requests for illicit photos that could be used for sextortion/blackmail. Fraudsters will use AI to create deep-fake explicit photos, and expect you to reciprocate. The “I showed you mine, now you show me yours” tactic has a stronger pull than you might imagine.
  • They ask for money. Once these scammers have gained the trust of their victims, they will start requesting money. They will ask the victim to send the money via wire transfers, gift cards, or cryptocurrency. Often, they will suggest linking bank accounts to make it easier to give money and pay it back, which, of course, never happens. The requests are often to help them get out of a bad situation, repay a debt, settle a medical bill, get an urgent car repair, or invest in a lucrative opportunity. 

Fraud Geek’s Advice
Consumers can protect themselves while online dating by remembering the following:

  • DON’T share too much information! Avoid publicly sharing information that may make you seem vulnerable, like being recently widowed or divorced, suffering from another loss like the death of a child, or even being fired from your job. You may be tempted to share this on social media, hoping for support from your “friends.” The danger in this is that your privacy settings or friend list may expose this information to people who will use it against you.
  • DON’T divulge financial details: Never share information about your income, assets, bank accounts, etc., especially early in a relationship when you have never met. Financial conversations are important to have when you enter a committed relationship, but should never be had with someone you have not met in person.
  • DON’T send money to someone you have never met in person, no matter how convincing their story may be. I repeat, DO NOT send the money. The amount will be significant, and your bank or credit union is not going to reimburse you for falling for a scam.
  • DON’T share personal documents: Never send pictures of your passport or driver’s license, even if the person requests it to prove your identity. Fraudsters will use this to steal your identity as a fallback plan to profit on you if and when you start to suspect the scam.
  • DON’T share intimate photos or videos, as these can be used for blackmail or sextortion. Also, once that explicit photo or video is online, you have no control over it. Remember that fraudsters will use AI to create deep-fake explicit photos and expect you to reciprocate. Fraudsters may also agree to a live video chat and use a deep-fake overlay. You may feel safe in a video chat, but keep in mind that the fraudster can take screenshots and use them against you.
  • NEVER share passwords, account information, or credit numbers with anyone online. You will never recover the money lost, no matter how many fraud guarantees your bank or credit union advertises.
  • DO your research: Check social media profiles for multiple accounts on the same platform. Look for red flags like social accounts with barely any followers, no posts, limited activity, etc. Consider using reverse image search tools like Google Images to check if the profile pictures provided are being used with other names. 
  • Trust your gut – if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.
  • Have the courage to report it – There is no statistic for the number of romance scams that go unreported because victims of romance scams are too embarrassed or ashamed to report it. That has to change. If you are a victim, there is no shame because you’re not alone, and the people working to fight this need the information to help others avoid falling victim to these scams. If you have a family member who’s ecstatic about a new love interest they have never met in person, share this story.

If you believe you’ve been a victim of fraud, REPORT IT!

  1. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3.gov) or call the FBI Washington Field Office at 202-278-2000
  2. Federal Trade Commission (FTC)–ReportFraud.ftc.gov.

Financial Institutions: Keep Your Customers Protected:

  1. Educate customers: Financial institutions can provide educational resources to their customers about the risks of romance scams, including warning signs, how to protect personal information online, and how to report suspicious activity.
  1. Implement fraud detection tools: Financial institutions can leverage technology to detect and prevent fraudulent activities, including romance scams. This can include monitoring customer accounts for unusual activity, as well as identifying and blocking suspicious IP addresses.
  1. Provide customer support: Ensure your customers have clear and easily accessible information on how to report suspected fraud and receive support if they have been victimized by a romance scam.
  2. Train employees to recognize and report suspicious activity, such as unusually large or frequent transfers of money, especially within a short time frame, multiple account creation, sudden changes in spending habits, new international transactions, etc.

The DefenseStorm Difference:

DefenseStorm approaches fraud differently by looking at both monetary and non-monetary transactions to catch fraud before funds leave the bank. Our GRID Active Fraud Detection product would have flagged unusual patterns, such as the five large withdrawals Rotolo authorized within a month, which was inconsistent with normal activity. Our ability to monitor, detect, and alert on suspicious activity across all departments – including Originations, Online and Mobile banking, and Internal Fraud – allows the FI to stop fraudsters before funds leave the account.

 

Resources: 

https[:]//www[.]nbcnewyork[.]com/news/local/the-hell-of-my-life-long-island-woman-loses-475k-in-online-dating-scam/4142619/

https[:]//longisland[.]news12[.]com/oceanside-woman-says-she-lost-475000-to-online-scammer-who-got-her-information-off-zoosk

https[:]//www[.]ftc[.]gov/news-events/news/press-releases/2023/02/new-ftc-data-reveals-top-lies-told[-]romance[-]scammers

 

Adam

Adam Barrett

Sr. Product Manager, Fraud Detection

Adam is the DefenseStorm Fraud Geek with an extreme passion for protecting financial institutions and the people who trust them to provide a safe banking experience. He is currently the Senior Product Manager for DefenseStorm GRID Active Fraud Detection product. With 25 years of experience in banking operations, fraud and risk, you would think he’s seen it all, however, the constantly evolving schemes keep him motivated to stay in the fight.