The FBI said this week that thousands of people had filed complaints about online romance scams that resulted in losses totaling about $133 million.
In a release, the FBI explained that from January 1 to July 31, the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center received more than 1,800 complaints about romance scams where victims were coerced into sending money digitally or trading cryptocurrency for another person.
"The scammer's initial contact is typically made via dating apps and other social media sites. The scammer gains the confidence and trust of the victim -- through establishing an online relationship -- and then claims to have knowledge of cryptocurrency investment or trading opportunities that will result in substantial profits," the FBI said in a statement.
"The scammer directs the victim to a fraudulent website or application for an investment opportunity. After the victim has invested an initial amount on the platform and sees an alleged profit, the scammers allow the victim to withdraw a small amount of money, further gaining the victim's trust. After the successful withdrawal, the scammer instructs the victim to invest larger amounts of money and often expresses the need to 'act fast.' When the victim is ready to withdraw funds again, the scammers create reasons why this cannot happen."
Even more, funds are extracted from victims when cybercriminals say there are additional taxes or fees that need to be paid. Some scammers include a "customer service group" to siphon more funds from a victim and generally stop answering messages once there is no money left to steal.
In July, a resident of Houston, Texas, was sentenced to over seven years in jail for his role in romance and business scams that netted over $2.2 million in illicit proceeds. Last week, a former US Army reservist was sentenced to over three-and-a-half years in prison for conducting both romance and Business Email Compromise (BEC) scams.
Paul Bischoff, the privacy advocate at Comparitech, told ZDNet that in 2020 alone, reported losses to romance scams reached a record $304 million, about a 50% increase on 2019's $201 million, according to the FTC. The FBI reported $475 million in losses in the same year, Bischoff added.
He noted that the FBI's numbers are often at odds with those presented by the FTC.
Romance scams accounted for larger losses than any other type of scam, according to the FTC.
"The majority of romance scam victims are women over the age of 50, according to the FBI. Given that elder fraud is hugely underreported, the real figures are likely much higher. The scam starts on dating apps or social media, where the scammer approaches the victim and begins a grooming process," Bischoff explained.
"This often involves love bombing or showering the victim with affection to make them feel infatuated. The next step might involve the victim sending something that the scammer can use against them, such as compromising photos. Scammers often try to trick victims into sending money, but victims can also be used as mules for money laundering or smuggling illegal goods."
The elderly are often the prime targets for these kinds of scams -- particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic -- because they are often socially isolated and in need of personal connection.
Bischoff noted that romance scams often go on for a long time, with victims continuing to send money even after they realize they're being scammed, either due to romantic feelings for the scammer or because they're being blackmailed.
Romance scams have long been a go-to method for cybercriminals to steal money and valuable personal information from people. According to the Federal Trade Commission, from 2017 to 2021, romance scams were one of the top five most lucrative scams perpetrated against military personnel.
US military members lost $92 million through romance scams between 2017 and 2021, with the median loss hovering around $2,500.