Valentine’s Day is upon us, and, as investigators, our minds turn not to chocolate and roses but to romance fraud. According to Fraud.org, romance fraud is the tenth most common type of scam in the U.S. Last year, the Federal Trade Commission received complaints of losses related to romance fraud totaling more than $105 million. FTC officials say that this is only “the tip of the iceberg,” as most victims are too embarrassed to seek help from law enforcement.
The vast majority of the victims of these scams are women over the age of 50, and most of the fraud originates in Africa, Asia, or Eastern Europe. But, as anyone who watches MTV’s Catfish knows, romance fraud can happen to anyone. We had a case that broke all the rules. Our client was a successful, well-educated woman in her mid-thirties who worked in the finance industry. She thought she had met Mr. Right online. He was a worldly hedge fund executive from the U.S. who did business in Paris and Milan, or so he said.
Not long after their relationship began, she started noticing red flags. First, he refused to meet her in person. She shrugged this off as the cost of being in love with an international businessman. They would talk on the phone while he was “traveling,” but instead of having her call him at his hotels overseas, he had her contact him at a number with an Atlanta area code. Finally, he asked her for money to help him get out of a sticky legal situation in Paris. That’s when she called us.
We first noticed that the boyfriend’s business did not have a website, only a LinkedIn profile riddled with typos. We were then quickly able to discover through public record searches that his company did not exist. We also found that, rather than hanging out with jet-setting Europeans, he was living a quiet life in his parents’ basement in Atlanta. Our client was fortunate enough to discover this fraud before she lost any money.
One of the easiest ways to screen an online dating match right off the bat is with a TinEye search of his or her profile photo. If the photo has appeared elsewhere around the web, you know it’s a fake. If the photo passes muster, beware of immediate requests to communicate outside of the dating site. Dating sites have software aimed at protecting clients from fraud that scammers would rather avoid.
Keep an eye out for anyone claiming to be from the U.S. but conducting business abroad, a reluctance to meet in person, or cancelling plans to meet at the last minute. Also beware of anyone saying they are serving overseas in the military. The Army Criminal Investigation Command has called romance scams involving people pretending to be soldiers an “epidemic.” Finally, beware of any request for money. And remember, scammers are often willing to spend years building relationships before they escalate to this point. So, no matter how in love you think you are, always keep your wits about you when you are involved in an online relationship.