Q: What are you hearing from Iowans about romance scams?
A: The efforts of rip off artists seeking to enrich themselves at the expense of their victims are a tale as old as time. Today the internet gives con artists and criminals a digital platform to lay an anonymous trap far and wide, from identity theft to online extortion and money laundering.
Most recently, I’m hearing from Iowans about so-called confidence fraud and romance scams on the internet and via email or text messages. These crimes often target grandparents and vulnerable individuals by tugging at people’s heartstrings and putting their finances at risk. However, anyone can become a target to fraud. Often part of nefarious criminal networks, digital Cupids use online dating sites and social media platforms to send tainted romantic messages. Fraudsters manipulate unsuspecting victims to gain their trust and eventually trap them into sending money. Federal agencies have alerted Americans to know the warning signs, including the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the lead federal agency for investigating cybercrime. According to Iowa Attorney General Brenna Bird, these types of scams are the fourth most common complaint received by the Consumer Protection Division. The Iowa AG’s office advises Iowans to watch out for the following warning signs: Be on high alert if people you meet online will not meet you in person; Never wire, Cash App (or other money app transfer), send crypto-currency (including via Bitcoin ATMs), or mail money to someone you truly don’t know. Unfortunately, the criminals who seek to gain the trust of their next target have developed tricks and seasoned expertise to score what they are looking for: access to your money.
The romantic cheats are criminal deadbeats. They will seem genuine because they have created a fake online identity and use social engineering to prey on potential victims. That means they do their homework to profile their target so they are able to take advantage of someone’s vulnerability, generosity or empathy. They manipulate and endear themselves to build an illusion of trust and affection over a period of time. Some scammers even propose marriage. Sooner or later, they will ask for money or trick you into making an investment. They may ask for gift cards or cash to buy a plane ticket to come for a visit, or to pay for medical expenses or other life emergency. They may pretend to be in the military and appeal to your sense of patriotism. According to data from the FTC’s Consumer Sentinel Network, Americans filed nearly 70,000 reports of romance scams in 2022 with financial losses reaching $1.3 billion. As with any romantic situation, online or in person, it’s better to be safe than sorry. For example, if a new love interest asks for your bank account information, date of birth or Social Security number, let that raise a red flag. End all contact before the scammer is able to ghost you after taking your money and stealing your identity.
Q: How can people protect themselves and report fraud?
A: First, don’t be ashamed. Fraud can happen to anyone. If you suspect identity fraud or a romance scam, file a police report and contact your financial institutions to protect your accounts. Ask credit bureaus to monitor your identity for suspicious activity or put in place a security freeze. Report the suspicious activity to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center. Be prepared to share records, such as emails, addresses, phone numbers, financial transactions and receipts. When using social media, be wary of messages from people you don’t know. Tighten your privacy settings. Scammers harvest posts and profiles to build an online relationship with their target to seem like it’s a match made in heaven. Digital hustlers also will use flattering compliments, pretend to share acquaintances and interests to ingratiate themselves with their targets. They’re looking to hook someone into building an online relationship. Be guarded about the information you share online. Also tread cautiously if the person wants to switch gears and move your conversation from where you first met to continue on a private messaging board. Criminal impostors are looking to cover their tracks. Also be mindful that a request for explicit photos is an invitation for extortion. Don’t do it. If an online romance partner won’t meet in person, keeps asking for money and sounds too good to be true, trust your gut instinct. Confide in a trusted friend or family member to help protect yourself from a broken heart and an empty bank account.
Report scams to:
- The Iowa Attorney General https://www.iowaattorneygeneral.gov/for-consumers/file-a-consumer-complaint
- The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) https://www.ic3.gov/
- The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) https://ReportFraud.ftc.gov