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How to Avoid Romance Scams 

It’s the romance scam story that plays out like a segment on a true crime show. It starts with a budding relationship formed on an online dating site. It ends with an ominous note and an abandoned car on a riverside boat ramp hundreds of miles away from the victim’s home. 

The story that follows offers a look at how far romance scams can go. With that, we warn you that this story comes to a grim ending. We share it to show just how high the stakes can get in these scams and how cunning the scammers who run them can be.  

Most importantly, it gives us an opportunity to show how you can spot and avoid romance scams in all their forms. 

Laura’s story

As recently reported across several news outlets, comes the story of Laura, a 57-year-old retired woman from Chicago who joined an online dating service in search of a relationship. She went with a known site, thinking it would be safer than some of the other options online.  

Sure enough, she met “Frank Borg,” who posed as a ruggedly good-looking Swedish businessman. A relationship flourished, and within days the pair professed their love for each other. 

Over time, however, the messages became increasingly transactional. Transcripts show that “Frank” started asking for money, which Laura wired to a bogus company. All to the eventual tune of $1.5 million and a mortgaged home. 

Yet the scam cut yet deeper than that. “Frank” then had her open several phony dating profiles on different online dating sites, set up new bank accounts, and further spin up fake companies. In all, “Frank” appears to not only have scammed Laura, he also weaponized her — turning her into an accomplice as “Frank” sought to scam others.  

As the account goes, Laura grew suspicious about a year into the scam. A gap appears in her correspondence with “Frank,” and it appears that some conversations went offline. Today, Laura’s daughter speculates that her mother knew that what she was doing was illegal and was threatened to keep at it. 

The story ends two years after the romance started, with Laura going missing, only to be found drowned in the Mississippi River. Left behind, a note, found by her daughter while searching Laura’s house. It wrote of living a double life that left her broke because of “Frank.” The note also left instructions for accessing her email, which chronicled the online part of the affair in detail. 

Investigations found no clear evidence of foul play, yet several questions remain. What is known is that “Frank’s” profile picture was a doctor from Chile and that the emails originated in Ghana. 

The cost of romance scams

While Laura’s story falls into a heartbreaking extreme, romance scams of all sorts happen often enough. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) 2023 Internet Crime Report, losses to reported cases of romance scams topped more than $650 million.i  

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) cites even higher figures for 2023, at $1.4 billion, for a median loss of $2,000 per reported case.ii That makes romance scams the highest in reported losses for any form of imposter scam according to the FTC. 

Sadly, many romance scams go unreported. The reasons vary. Understandably, some victims feel ashamed. This is particularly the case when it comes to older victims. Many fear their friends and families might take it as a sign that they aren’t able to fully care for themselves anymore. Other victims might feel that the romance was real — that they weren’t scammed at all. They believe that their love interest will come back. 

Practically anyone can fall victim to a romance scam. People of all ages and backgrounds have found themselves entangled in romance scams. With that, there should be no shame. These scammers have shown time and time again how sophisticated their playbooks are. They excel at slow and insidious manipulation over time.  

When the scammer starts asking for money, the victim is locked in. They believe that they’re in love with someone who loves them just the same. They fork over the money without question. And that’s what makes these scams so exceptionally damaging. 

Signs of a romance scam to look out for

Sophisticated as these scammers are, you can spot them.  

Even with the arrival of AI chat tools and deepfake technology, romance scammers still rely on a set of age-old tricks. Ultimately, romance scammers play long and patient mind games to get what they want. In many cases, scammers use scripted playbooks put together by other scammers. They follow a common roadmap, one that we can trace and share so you can avoid falling victim. 

Top signs include … 

It seems too good to be true. 

If the person seems like a perfect match right from the start, be cautious. Scammers often stake out their victims and create profiles designed to appeal to their desires and preferences. In some cases, we’ve seen instances where a scammer uses pictures and profiles similar to the deceased partners of widowers. 

Love comes quickly. Too quickly. 

As the case was with “Frank,” two weeks hadn’t passed before the word “love” appeared in the messages. Take that as a red flag, particularly online when you’ve had no in-person contact with them. A rush into declarations of love might indicate ulterior motives. 

The story doesn’t check out. 

Victims might think they’re talking to a romantic partner, yet they’re talking with a scammer. Sometimes several different scammers. As we’ve shown in our blogs before, large online crime organizations run some romance scams. With several people running the scam, inconsistencies can crop up. Look out for that.  

What’s more, even individual scammers forget details they’ve previously shared or provide conflicting info about their background, job, or family. It’s possible that one romance scammer has several scams going on at once, which can lead to confusion on their part. 

You feel pressured. 

Romance scammers pump their victims for info. With things like addresses, phone numbers, and financial details, scammers use that info to commit further identity theft or scams. If someone online presses you for this info, keep it to yourself. It might be a scam.  

Another mark of a scam — if the person asks all sorts of prying questions and doesn’t give up any such info about themselves. A romance scam is very one way in this regard. 

You’re asked for money in some form or fashion. 

This is the heart of the scam. With the “relationship” established, the scammer starts asking for money. They might ask for bank transfers, cryptocurrency, money orders, or gift cards. In all, they ask for funds that victims have a tough time getting refunded, if at all. Consider requests for money in any form as the reddest of red flags. 

Watch out for AI. 

Scammers now use AI. And that actually gives us one less tell-tale sign of a romance scam. It used to be that romance scammers refused to hop on video calls as they would reveal their true identities. The same for voice chats. (Suddenly, that Swedish businessman doesn’t sound so Swedish.) That’s not the case anymore. With AI audio and video deepfake technology so widely available, scammers can now sound and look the part they’re playing — in real time. AI mirrors every expression they make as they chat on a video call.  

As things stand now, these technologies have limits. The AI can only track faces, not body movements. Scammers who use this technology must sit rather rigidly. Further, many AI tools have a hard time capturing the way light reflects or catches the eye. If something looks off, the person on the other end of the call might be using deepfake technology. 

The important point is this: today’s romance scammers can make themselves appear like practically anyone. Just because you’re chatting with a “real” person on a call or video meeting, that’s no guarantee they are who they say.  

How to make it tougher for a romance scammer to target you

Romance scammers track down their victims in several ways. Some scammers blast out direct messages and texts en masse with the hope they’ll get a few bites. Others profile their potential victims before they contact them. Likewise, they’ll research anyone who indeed gives them a bite with a response to a blast. 

In all cases, locking down your privacy can make it tougher for a scammer to target you. And tougher for them to scam you if they do. Your info is their goldmine, and they use that info against you as they build a “relationship” with you.  

With that in mind, you can take several steps … 

Make your social media more private. Our new McAfee Social Privacy Manager personalizes your privacy based on your preferences. It does the heavy lifting by adjusting more than 100 privacy settings across your social media accounts in only a few clicks. This makes sure that your personal info is only visible to the people you want to share it with. It also keeps it out of search engines where the public can see it. Including scammers. 

Watch what you post on public forums. As with social media, scammers harvest info from online forums dedicated to sports, hobbies, interests, and the like. If possible, use a screen name on these sites so that your profile doesn’t immediately identify you. Likewise, keep your personal details to yourself. When posted on a public forum, it becomes a matter of public record. Anyone, including scammers, can look it up. 

Remove your info from data brokers that sell it. McAfee Personal Data Cleanup helps you remove your personal info from many of the riskiest data broker sites out there. That includes your contact info. Running it regularly can keep your name and info off these sites, even as data brokers collect and post new info. Depending on your plan, it can send requests to remove your data automatically.  

Delete your old accounts. Yet another source of personal info comes from data breaches. Scammers use this info as well to complete a sharper picture of their potential victims. With that, many internet users can have over 350 online accounts, many of which they might not know are still active. McAfee Online Account Cleanup can help you delete them. It runs monthly scans to find your online accounts and shows you their risk level. From there, you can decide which to delete, protecting your personal info from data breaches and your overall privacy as a result. 

Stay extra skeptical of sudden romance online

We’ve always had to keep our guard up to some extent when it comes to online romance. Things today call for even more skepticism. Romance scams have become tremendously more sophisticated, largely thanks to AI tools. 

Even with technology reshaping the tricks scammers can pull, recognizing that their tactics remain the same as ever can protect you from harm.  

Romance scammers flatter, manipulate, and pressure their way into the lives of their victims. They play off emotions and threaten to “leave” if they don’t get what they ask for. Emotionally, none of it feels right. Any kind of emotional extortion like that is a sign to end an online relationship, hard as that might be. 

The trick is that the victim might be in deep at that point. They might not act even if things feel wrong. That’s where family and friends come in. If something doesn’t feel right, share what’s happening with someone you’ve known and trusted for years. That can help clear up any clouded judgment. Sometimes it takes an extra set of eyes to spot a scammer. 

If you or someone you know falls victim to a romance scam, remember that no one is alone in this. Thousands and thousands of others are victims too. It might come as some comfort, particularly as many, many victims are otherwise savvy and centered people. Anyone, anyone, can find themselves a victim. 

Lastly, romance scams are crimes. If one happens to you, report it. In the U.S., you can report it to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) and you can file a complaint with the FTC. Also, report any theft or threats to your local authorities.  

In all, the word on romance online is this — take things slowly. “Love” in two weeks or less hoists a big red flag. Very much so online. Know those signs of a scam when you see them. And if they rear their head, act on them. 

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