More than $500M taken from romance scam victims in 2021, report says

CHARLOTTE — A new federal report found victims looking for love online sent more than half a billion dollars to scammers last year.

More than a third of the people said their relationship started on Facebook or Instagram -- a lot of times with an unexpected private message. They were scammed out of $547 million in 2021, the Federal Trade Commission found.

With Valentine’s Day looming, romance is in the air; and if you’re considering using a dating app, the Better Business Bureau has a warning.

Scammers are connecting with victims through these apps -- and they’re more interested in money than romance.

How the scam works:

Someone starts messaging you on a dating app. After chatting for a little while, your new love interest suggests that you chat on text or email, rather than through the app. If you do that, you may notice that they also delete their dating profile.

Everything seems great at first, but it won’t take long before your new friend makes some unusual, but seemingly harmless, requests – they want you to receive money for them and wire it overseas. They may claim to be helping a loved one battling COVID-19, doing a business deal or representing a charitable organization. If you refuse, they may get hostile, threaten you or grow distant.

It turns out that the money they want you to receive is actually stolen CARES Act funds. After stealing it, scammers send the money through someone in the United States to make it harder for authorities to trace. Money laundering and wire fraud are illegal and although the “money mule” is a victim, they may still face prosecution.

How to protect yourself from this scam:

Do your research. Many scammers steal photos from the internet to use in their dating profiles. You can do a reverse image lookup using a website such as Google Images to see if the photos on a profile are stolen from somewhere else. You can also search online for a profile name, email or phone number to see what adds up and what doesn’t. Scammers most often pose as men, and target women in their 50s and 60s.

Ask specific questions about details given in a profile. A scammer may stumble over remembering details or making a story fit.

Never send money or sensitive personal information to someone you’ve never met in person. Cut off contact if someone starts asking you for financial or personal information such as your credit card number or government ID numbers.

Be very suspicious of requests to wire money or use a prepaid debit card. These are scammers’ favorite ways to send payments because, like cash, once the money is gone, it can’t be recovered.

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