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  • Writer's pictureESET Expert

Rom-con: How romance fraud targets older people and how to avoid it

Romance scams often follow the same script – here’s what senior citizens should watch out for and how their younger relatives can help them avoid falling victim

Recently, we looked at how older people can avoid falling victim to various flavors of online scams. This time round, we’ll examine the costliest type of fraud to affect people 60 or older – online dating scams, also known as romance scams. According to a report by the United States’ Federal Trade Commission, this age cohort reported losing nearly $84 million to online dating scams in 2019, with losses to government impostor scams and to various types of sweepstakes and lottery fraud ‘only’ coming in second and third, respectively. The COVID-19 pandemic has since added to the problem, as online dating has exploded in popularity among people of all ages.

Indeed, older – and often lonely – people are at particular risk, including because the older generation is often trusting by nature and may not be attuned to the pitfalls that online dating platforms, or even technology as such, bring. Let’s review some common signs of romance scams, as well as how younger people can help their older relatives spot the red flags. Make no mistake, however; looking out for these red flags will stand even the younger generations in good stead.

You look too good to be true!

Enterprising fraudsters will try a variety of tried-and-tested tricks to swindle their marks out of savings or even trick them into unwittingly joining money-laundering rings. When it comes to online dating platforms, photos are usually front and center of the user experience, which means the first thing a user seeking romance sees is the photo of a potential match. To hoodwink seniors seeking a new flame, scammers usually use enticing stock images of models or steal photos from other people’s social media profiles.

Fortunately, there is a quick way to check if the target feels that something is off. Conducting a quick reverse search of the photo using Google Images should reveal whether the photo is fake or stolen.

Move the conversation somewhere more personal?

Most reputable dating platforms have systems for uncovering dating scammers, so to avoid triggering these security measures, the scammers try to move the conversation away from the confines of the dating platform pretty early on. Such scammers will try to convince the mark to part with their mobile number, email address, or social media handle so that they can communicate with them in a more personal way.

While eventually transitioning to another service can be considered normal, doing so within a few messages should set the inner alarms blaring. Besides, sharing such personal information with a virtual stranger isn’t the smartest thing to do.

Can we reschedule?

Usually, the successful culmination of online courtship is an in-person date. However, in the case of romance scammers who are usually impersonating someone else, meeting their target would expose them and jeopardize their chances of cashing in. That’s why these fraudsters like to impersonate professionals that both inspire trust and have to travel frequently for work. Often, they take on the guise of military personnel, diplomats, or sales representatives because repeated excuses such as “I’m being sent to a new base” or “I have to fly to a conference” won’t seem so fishy.

Canceling plans now and then is normal; however, if a suitor shuts down every attempt at a meeting, your relative should immediately become suspicious and question the suitor’s motives.

Hi! I love you!

Something that should jolt your relative up straight is when a new online love interest is too quick to profess their deep feelings for them. Saying “I love you” or calling your relative their soul mate within the first few days of conversation should send their spidey sense tingling.

The reason why scammers move so fast is that they want to ensnare the marks by showering them with affection and making them feel wanted. Once they’ve mellowed them with their sweet talk and proclamations, they can move on to their ultimate target – the wallets and bank accounts.

I’m stuck! Can you bail me out?

Once the fraudster thinks that they’ve spoken to their victim for long enough and cultivated a strong enough relationship, they will move on to ask for money or even favors. The first requests will usually be for something small, like paying their ailing animal’s vet bill or buying some medicine. Should that pan out, they’ll start raising the bar by asking for larger sums they’ll need to get out of a problem or help one of their relatives in dire need.

These aren’t just hypothetical scenarios: one woman from California was duped into laundering some US$200,000 that her online partner made from various illicit activities. Another woman was tricked out of her entire life savings of over US$55,000. And these examples are just the tip of the iceberg.

Final words of advice

The COVID-19 pandemic has severely limited people’s options of seeking romance and companionship, causing many to rely on online dating platforms. This isn’t a bad thing per se, but it does carry a certain amount of risk; therefore, it is prudent to approach potential flames with a healthy dose of doubt and vigilance. If an elderly member of your family has embarked on an online romantic relationship and you suspect they may actually be a victim of a scam, there are several signs that might give it away:

  • They don’t want to talk about their online romance and provide excuses why they haven’t met their ‘partner’ yet or even had a video call with them.

  • They might show a strong attachment to someone they have met online recently.

  • They might become defensive or even agitated if you ask too many questions about their romantic partner which they won’t know how to answer.

  • They let slip that they wired money to a person they haven’t met.

Should any of these describe a relative or friend, then you should probably have a candid discussion with them about what is going on. Romance fraud is a highly under-reported crime, as many victims tend to be ashamed of being duped. By noticing that something is wrong and discussing the problem, you’ll likely save your loved ones a great deal of money and heartache.


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