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Romance scammers' favorite lies cost victims $1.3B last year

Don't trust your super-hot military boyfriend you've never met. He doesn't exist

As Valentine's Day approaches, if your offshore oil rig worker "boyfriend" – who looks like Bradley Cooper in his online pics and has hinted at proposing to you for months, but you've never met in real life – suddenly needs money for "hospital bills" … Just. Don't. Do. It.

Romance scams cost victims at least $1.3 billion in 2022, according to the US Federal Trade Commission's latest numbers. Almost 70,000 people reported these crimes last year, and the median reported loss was $4,400.

The most common lie that scammers told their marks is that they, or someone close to them, is sick, hurt or in jail, according to more than 8,000 romance scams reported to the FTC that cost consumers' money. This line accounted for almost a quarter (24 percent) of all the theft. 

Meanwhile, "I can teach you how to invest" and "I'm in the military far away" along with "I need help with an important delivery" all tied for second place, with 18 percent. 

These types of investment scams have prompted warnings from US and European government agencies as law enforcement cracks down on so-called "pig butchering" schemes. 

Number one payment method in romance scams: crypto

Pig butchering is a newish twist on romance scams, in which fraudsters build a relationship with their victims and then con them into transferring money into accounts controlled by the crooks. In these cases, however, the fraudsters convince their marks to "invest" in cryptocurrency using phony websites. Once a victim transfers money to the crooks, the latter abscond and disappear. The money is never seen again.

Last month, European cops arrested 15 suspected scammers and shut down a multi-country network of call centers selling fake cryptocurrency that law enforcement said stole hundreds of millions of euros from victims.

And in November, the US government seized seven domain names used in pig butchering scams that netted criminals more than $10 million.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the largest aggregate reported dollar losses due to romance scams last year were connected to cryptocurrency, according to the FTC.

Some of the other excuses romance scammers offered up as to why they couldn't meet face-to-face and/or needed their true love to transfer a large amount of money immediately – ranked in order of prevalence of scams reported by consumers – were:

  • "We've never met but let's talk about marriage" (12 percent);
  • "I've come into some money or gold" (7 percent);
  • "I'm on an oil rig or ship" (6 percent);
  • "You can trust me with your private pictures" (3 percent).

One more reason not to send that NSFW pic

That last point above highlights the growing trend of sextortion scams, according to the FTC. Once you've shared NSFW photos, the scammer then threatens to send them to all of your social media contacts unless you pay up. 

FTC data shows these scams have increased more than eightfold since 2019, with people aged 18 to 29 more than six times as likely to report sextortion than people 30 and older.

Additionally, more than half (58 percent) of 2022 sextortion reports identified social media as the contact method. Instagram and Snapchat topped the list, we're told.

While romance scammers frequently use dating apps to target victims, crooks favor private messages on social media platforms to spark a love match. According to the FTC, 40 percent of victims who lost money in 2022 said the scam started on social media, compared to 19 percent who cited a dating website or app.

Social media is especially effective because it gives romance scammers "a goldmine of open source intelligence" according to Mika Aalto, CEO of Finnish security software vendor Hoxhunt.

"After a little reconnaissance by the attacker, it's common for victims to get hooked on a site like Facebook or Instagram with a flirty message," Aalto told The Register. "The picture of a scammer posing as an attractive person can create a strong emotional connection that bypasses a person's typical skepticism. From there, the relationship can feel incredibly real."

In case there was any doubt, the security firm co-founder points to NFL star Manti Te'o, whose fake girlfriend and catphishing scam is now the subject of a Netflix documentary.

"Sadly, recovering stolen funds from a romance scam or a catphishing attack is highly unlikely," Aalto added. But it's not just money that people lose in these; the emotional damage can be difficult to quantify, much less overcome, after trusting someone deeply enough for them to take advantage of you." ®

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