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February 14, 2024 - Greg Oprendek

How Romance Scams are Evolving and Ways to Stay Safe

In third-century Rome, a priest named Valentinus defied the emperor’s laws forbidding soldiers to marry, instead wedding them in secret. When the furious Emporer discovered this, he had Valentinus put to death.

Strangely, Valentinus’ story—which many claim is the origin of the Valentine’s Day holiday we celebrate today—reveals why modern romance scams are so successful. Those soldiers, and Valentinus himself, were willing to risk death to find companionship.

Love may be the strongest emotion we can feel as humans. And if there’s one thing we know scammers aim to manipulate, it’s strong emotions.

Romance scams are more dangerous and financially damaging than ever, thanks to our constantly connected world and new technology at fraudsters’ disposal. In this blog post, we’re going to cover everything you need to know about how romance scams work in 2024 and how to spot them, so you’ll fall for true love this Valentine’s Day and not a scam.

What romance scams look like in 2024

In 2023, romance scams ranked second only to investment scams as the most damaging frauds by dollar value at $1.1 billion in the US alone. In many modern scams, these two frauds are intertwined.

Nearly all romance scams in 2024 start on social media, especially Facebook. Scammers can easily search to find potential victims who have set their relationship status as widowed, a common target. Then, they can set up a fake profile in seconds, create a fake backstory, and start messaging potential victims. Usually, these situations are both exotic and remote, adding both intrigue and plausibility for the victim. Common lies are that the love interest is a soldier overseas, or a foreign investor or business magnate looking for love in a different country.

Another common tactic is to impersonate a celebrity and search fan groups for victims. In one example from this year, a Chicago woman was scammed out of $80,000, taking out loans against her possessions and even liquidating her entire savings as she believed she was in a relationship with an actor from the show Chicago Fire. In another similar scam, fraudsters targeted a woman by pretending to be the star of a Korean drama she’s a fan of. The scammers made her believe the star wanted to meet her but told her she needed to first pay an $18,500 booking fee. Then, they added another $39,500 for “his jet and his five security guards.”

While these scams may seem obvious in hindsight or from the outside, the reason these are so damaging is because of the skill fraudsters have in manipulating victims’ emotions. They commonly start with a tactic called “love bombing,” using highly affectionate terms and professing how special they feel this connection having just started talking to the victim.

Once scammers have established a strong emotional bond with the victim, they will lean on urgency and sympathy to continue extorting them. They can say they need money quickly to escape a dangerous situation or continue to ask for travel money and lie that they are trying to meet the victim. Many times scammers will ask that victims pay them using cryptocurrency or wire payments as these paper trails are easier to hide.

Why romance scams are more dangerous and convincing than ever

In the past, grammar errors in messages and poor communication skills could out fraudsters from non-English speaking countries running romance scams on victims in English-speaking countries. Today, however, they have generative AI-powered chatbots to create perfect-sounding love letters and messages that could fool anyone.

Fraudsters in the past also needed to concoct convincing reasons why they could not talk to the victim on video chat. Today, thanks to deepfake technology, they can appear to be the fake persona they have created or even a celebrity.

Scammers have combined these powerful technologies with their years of experience refining fake profiles and communication methods to make romance scams more efficient and easy to run than ever.

Financial institutions see another big reason romance scams continue to thrive—social media networks themselves. Banks are asking social networks for more help stemming these scams and calling on them to remove fake profiles faster and add better authentication methods.

As with many modern frauds, crime rings operate romance scams at a mass scale. Because these are not lone fraudsters, they can leverage shared resources to target many more victims around the world.

How to spot a romance scam in 2024

Knowing romance scammers methods is an important start to spotting romance scams. But there are some common tactics and lies they use that you’ll want to be aware of to spot scams too.

Common signs of a romance scam

  1. Scammers will always avoid meeting in person. Whether they have a plausible reason or not, always be suspicious if someone refuses to meet offline.
  2. Once they quickly establish deep romantic connection, they will move to asking for money even faster. Remember, if this person really loves you it’s aways okay to ask why they need money and decline if you aren’t completely comfortable.
  3. Fraudsters push cryptocurrencies or alternative payments. This is to avoid a paper trail and should always cause suspicion.

Common lies romance scammers tell

  1. “I’m sick/hurt/in jail and need help getting treatment or released.” This appeal to sympathy is hard to turn down, but don’t trust anything without strong proof.
  2. “I want to teach you how to invest risk-free.” Scammers, especially those running pig butchering scams, have elaborate investment scams set up that can even seem legitimate at first but are extremely dangerous.
  3. “I’m in the military.” or “I live in another country.” This sets up a reasonable excuse why the scammer can’t meet in person, but should always be verified through third-party means.
  4. “I need you to help me deliver something important.” This could be the start of a money mule scam, so never trust someone asking for favors you haven’t met.
  5. “I want to marry you, but I need you to help me get to you.” Scammers will promise what they know the victim wants—a lifelong partnership. This is a strong emotional appeal but the scammer being willing to quickly jump into a major decision like this is a red flag.
  6. “You can trust me with your private pictures/sensitive information.” This is a setup for blackmail, so never trust someone with sensitive or private information unless you are absolutely positive you can trust them and have met them in person first.

Always report romance scams that have happened to you or any friends or loved ones. The pain of admitting what’s happened, both financially and emotionally, can be intense. But holding onto that shame and blaming yourself or your loved one is unfair. Remember, romance scams tricked victims into losing more than $1 billion in 2023 alone. Anyone can fall victim to emotion-based scams like these, so it’s important to get authorities involved as soon as you can. If you want to stay smart and safeguard yourself against more of the most dangerous financial scams, check out our full wiki with the most common bank frauds and other scams.

about Greg Oprendek
Greg is a passionate digital marketer, avid basketball fan, aspiring fraud expert, and Content Marketing Manager at DataVisor.
about Greg Oprendek
Greg is a passionate digital marketer, avid basketball fan, aspiring fraud expert, and Content Marketing Manager at DataVisor.