How to Stop a Romance Scam in its Tracks

Millions of people go online in search of romance, and while it does work out for a lot of folks, there are also plenty of fishy people lying in wait, pretending to be interested in a relationship for the sole purpose of stealing your money (or having you become the only traceable link in a money-laundering scheme). Here are three warning signs you do not want to ignore.

For most people, the entire point of being in a relationship is to eventually occupy the same physical  space as one another; in other words, to make googly eyes at each other in person (presumably while drinking a chocolate malt with two straws while Bill Haley and his Comets plays on the jukebox) rather than online. If your attempts to arrange to meet someone in real life (in a well-lit, public place, after letting other people know where you’re going and whom you’re meeting) are repeatedly met with last-moment excuses why they can’t show up, it is time to suspect that the person you’ve been talking to is not who they claim to be.

On a similar note, another common feature of romance scams is a list of excuses for why the other person cannot talk via video chat. They’re always in an area with a poor internet connection, or they’re just too busy with their extremely successful career to show their face in real-time video. They’ll send photo after photo, but when it comes to seeing each other over FaceTime or Zoom, there is always a reason they can’t…just yet. Of course, what is really happening is that they are not even remotely who they claim to be, and video chatting would spoil the illusion.

Finally, as soon as the person you’re communicating with brings up money or checks, whether they’re asking you to send money to them, receive money and distribute it to others, cash a check for them and return the funds via wire transfer, something involving CashApp or Zelle or PayPal…anything, at any time, for any supposed reason, this confirms that you are talking to a scammer. As painful as it can be to realize you’ve been tricked, stop all contact immediately, and do not accept any further communication from them. There is no salvaging the “relationship” because there never was one. It’s over.

If You’re Asking, it’s Probably a Scam

Sometimes when I’m looking for a new scam (or a new angle on an old scam) to write about, I will check out the “Scams” forum on the social news website Reddit. The posts on this forum mostly consist of users describing a website, email or text message, offer or other situation, in order to ask forum members if it sounds fraudulent.

In nearly 100% of the posts I have ever read, the answer is a resounding “yes!”

Many of these users are young, so their experience of the world is likely somewhat limited. They’ve also grown up with no knowledge of a time before the Internet. It’s just a daily part of life to them. A deal offered online is no different or more suspicious than a coupon from a supermarket.

But if you’ve been around a little longer, it is often painfully obvious within the first few words of the post that yes, what you’re describing is a scam. It becomes repetitive quickly.

“Is this a scam? I found brand new Xbox on Facebook Marketplace for $50 and—” YES. SCAM.

“Is this a scam? I was on a dating site and matched with a guy who works in an oilfield—” YES. SCAM!

“Is this a scam? This site is selling Air Jordan 14—” YES! The URL is a string of random letters and was registered two weeks ago. Absolutely a scam.

“Is this a scam? I deposited my Bitcoin into—” YES. Sorry to say, your money is gone.

Which brings me to the point: it almost doesn’t seem to matter what the details of each situation are. Every single post like this starts out with the same question. The fact that they’re asking the question at all shows that, deep down, they already know something isn’t right. The lucky ones pose the question before they’ve given away money or personal information, but too often they are asking after the fact when it’s too late. I’ve read a lot of variations on, “It sounded kind of weird, but I…”

Trust your instincts, especially when it comes to the intersection of Internet strangers, your personal information, and your money. If you’re even wondering if something is a scam, it’s time to stop and think very hard about the next step.

Avoiding Online Shopping Scams

Here’s a scheme used by fraudulent sellers on sites like eBay and Facebook Marketplace, or third-party sellers on Amazon, Walmart or other retailers. The buyer makes a purchase and submits payment, and the seller responds with a USPS, UPS or FedEx tracking number. Several days later, the tracking shows the item as having been shipped and delivered. However, either no package ever arrived at the buyer’s home at all, or a tiny, worthless item was shipped (i.e. the buyer orders a laptop but receives a ring from a toy vending machine).

When the victim reports the issue to the website they bought the item through, the scammer will attempt to use the tracking information to refute the claim, essentially “proving” the item was delivered. The major selling platforms are aware of this scam and have some steps in place to deal with it, but it’s still not easy to prove a negative; do you send a photograph of your porch with no package on it? After all, there are also fraudulent buyers who will receive an item, claim it never arrived, then get a refund through the site or payment processor.

The best way to rectify this scam is to not fall for it in the first place, and the number one way to avoid this type of scam is to never believe a sale price that’s too good. Unless you find Easter candy on a Target endcap in October, or run across a going-out-of-business sale at an actual brick-and-mortar store, you’re not getting 90% off anything. Especially online.

Nobody is legitimately selling a hard-to-find $700 graphics processing unit for $70. Or genuine Ray-Ban sunglasses for $20. Or $150 Rolex watches. $80 iPhone 12’s. $50 Jordan 14’s. It just does not happen in the real world. There are discounts out there, sure, but if the price seems too good to be true, assume something isn’t right.

Remember that manufacturers don’t discount high-demand, low-supply items. They don’t HAVE to. If it’s sure to sell out anyway, and they’re only making a limited number, why would they needlessly reduce their own profits? It always pays to remember how the world really works.

Don’t Be Fooled by Scams Using Your Name

There has been a data breach.

Who? When? Where? How? What company was breached?

That part I can’t tell you. The truth is, there has ALWAYS been a data breach, at some point, somewhere. Sometimes it’s a big story, like the Anthem consumer data or Target card reader breaches from several years ago. Sometimes it doesn’t make the news at all. Sometimes companies deny there has been an intrusion at all (until Brian Krebs publicly posts the proof on his website).

It’s just a fact of modern living: unless your entire life has been lived completely off the grid, a chunk of your personal information is already out there, in the hands of people you’d rather not have it. It could be your name, phone number and the last four of your SSN. It could be almost everything about you, full account numbers and passwords, date of birth, the whole enchilada. Most likely it’s a mixture of different data points.

It could just be your first name, mobile phone number and provider. Just those three pieces of information can be useful to scammers and identity thieves. Look at these text messages an acquaintance of mine received twice this month (one day apart):

  1. AT&T Free Msg: bill is paid. Thanks, [Correct First Name]! Here’s a little gift for you: [link redacted]
  2. AT&T Free Msg: bill processed. Thanks, [Correct First Name]! Here’s a little freebie for you: [completely different link redacted]

Those links likely lead to a website designed to harvest the victim’s AT&T login information, then would probably go on to ask for banking account or other personal information, or attempt to glean credit card data in some form of advance fee scam. It could even be a “your phone is infected with 27 viruses, call this number to fix it” scheme. The possibilities are really endless.

This acquaintance does use AT&T as their mobile phone provider. They have automatic payments set up to come out about ten days after these texts showed up, so it wasn’t too hard to see that something suspicious was afoot. But how many people get this text message the day after they make their AT&T payment? If you’re not paying close attention to the fact that AT&T doesn’t give you free things just for paying your bill, or that they would use an “att.com” or “att.net” website instead of [random string of letters and numbers].info, you might end up clicking on that link and thinking you’re logging into to your real AT&T account before you knew what happened.

Always remember that scammers might have enough information about you to make their pitch seem realistic. A text or email that uses your name, or has some other correct piece of information about you, doesn’t prove anything anymore. There have been enough security breaches (not to mention sales of data like buying habits and interests) for anyone to construct a plausible fraudulent offer.

Online Games and Romance Scams

Have you ever heard a story about a couple who first met while playing the popular online game Words With Friends? It has happened a few times. Two people become friends via the game’s chat feature, meet in person months or years later, and end up in a relationship. It happens, but it’s rare. Rare enough that articles are written about it.

However, there is a much more common scenario that plays out on WWF and other online games: the Romance Scam, where a victim is chatted up by a scammer pretending to be a fellow single. They convince their target to send money while offering numerous excuses why they can’t meet in person just yet. Thousands of dollars later, the victim hopefully realizes what has happened. Some victims never catch on because they have become so emotionally invested in believing the scammer’s claims (the Sunk Cost Fallacy at work). A lot of articles are beginning to be written about this as well.

What you’ll notice if you read a few accounts of the real, verified examples of love that began in a game chat, is that at no point did one person ask the other to wire money, provide banking details, purchase gift cards and relay the information back, or receive electronic fund transfers in their personal account then forward these payments to other people around the world. These stories do not involve months and years of excuses why one party was always unavailable to meet in person, or even to talk via a video call.

These are all examples of red flags. When a person claims to be interested in you, then begins asking for money, nothing about that interaction is as it seems. You are dealing with a scammer. You can even zoom out more than that: if they’re asking you to do ANYTHING involving money, that is not a potential match. It’s a scammer. Any excuse why you can’t see one another in a video chat is a red flag. Remember: photos of people or military ID cards are NOT verification of anything. Claims of financial hardship or of a high-level banking career that (of course!) require your assistance (“processing payments”) are a sure sign that you’re dealing with a romance scammer.

Don’t let emotional investment cloud your judgement. Don’t even get emotionally invested in the first place until you know the other person exists as advertised. Being alone can be lonely, but being lonely and broke because you sent your life savings to a scammer is much, much worse.

Beware the Sunk Cost Fallacy

Have you ever nearly injured yourself at a buffet because you wanted to “get your money’s worth?” You paid for a meal, sampled the various dishes, and felt full. But then you thought about the money you’d already spent, and went back for more. And more. And still more, until finally you left the establishment in pain and unable to bend in the middle.

You were the victim of a psychological phenomenon known as “escalation of commitment.” Humans are wildly susceptible to this tendency to continue along the same course of action, even as the negative consequences mount, rather than change course or cut their losses.

When applied to finance and economics, this concept shows up as the sunk-cost fallacy, or “throwing good money after bad.” It is the reason victims of advance fee scams will continue to wire increasing amounts of money to a stranger, in hopes of getting some big payout in return. “I’ve already sent $15,000…what’s another couple thousand at this point, especially if they finally send that $2.5 million?”

Compounding this is the bias many people have toward their own actions. “If I’m already doing this, it must be correct, because…I can’t be wrong, can I?” We all have this bias to some extent—after all, it’s natural to assume your own thoughts are true. The victim’s inner voice may even be telling them something isn’t right, but the bias is too strong to overcome.

Some victims will become angry with anyone who tries to point out their mistake, to the point of cutting ties with well-meaning friends and family members, doubling down on their commitment to what has become an obvious fraud to everyone else. This can happen easily with Romance scams, where the victim (reinforced by the scammer) believes that everyone just wants them to remain alone and unhappy. The thing is, they’re going to end up single anyway, as well as out thousands of dollars, possibly in legal trouble, and more alone than ever.

Simply being aware of the sunk-cost fallacy can help you avoid it. Realizing that you have deep biases toward your own thoughts and actions can be all it takes to step back and reassess a situation when something seems a little weird, or doesn’t quite square with the way the world actually works. Sending a second, third, or twentieth payment to a scammer has never resolved with the victim getting whatever was promised, whether a lottery prize, six-figure entry-level job, or relationship. Therefore if you realize you’ve given something—money or personal information—to someone and you’re starting to have doubts, or people who care about you have expressed concern, listen to those voices. Once you’ve given a scammer a little bit of what they’re after, they will keep trying to get more. Remember the sunk-cost fallacy and cease all contact immediately. Block, report, contact the credit bureaus if you’ve handed over your personal data and call your financial institutions if you handed out account information. It’s hard to admit you were wrong, but no matter how emotionally or financially invested you’ve become, there is time to take control and back out. You’ll feel a lot better once you do.

Scams and Complicated Explanations

Have you ever watched a movie or read a book where the villain’s ultimate downfall is that he just talks too much?

The hero lies broken and bruised atop some building at the triumphant bad guy’s feet, while burning bits of debris rain down all around them and helicopters whir away in the distance, their spotlights scanning the ruined streets below. The villain lets out a guttural, joyless laugh and aims some twisted destructive device squarely at our hero’s face…and then pauses. He begins to taunt, and then to talk. Then he launches into a monologue that becomes a sermon, going into great detail of how he masterminded the whole thing, and why.

Several minutes of explanation later, the villain is the one either defeated or put to the run by the good guy, or some quipping accomplice whose fate was left unknown a few scenes earlier appearing from behind an air conditioning unit. If the bad guy had just shut up and acted dastardly, he would have succeeded, and gotten away with it. The entire Harry Potter series would have been a novella about a kid who doesn’t survive his first year of wizarding school if Voldemort would have flapped his gums less.

The “talkative villain” trope holds true in a lot of scams, as bad actors attempt to distract potential victims from how fishy the situation really is.

Pet scams start with an online listing for purebred dogs or cats, often at unusually low prices. The seller may initially agree to an in-person transaction, but will soon come up with complicated reasons why the buyer can’t see the animal or pay in person. They’re out of town on business, or they’re overseas, or somebody is in the hospital. Eventually they ask for payment through a peer-to-peer mobile app, offering to ship the dog or cat on an airplane, tack on a few hundred dollars for shipping, then disappear with the money.

Car sales scams operate in a similar fashion, with some well-regarded used vehicle for sale (at thousands below blue book value) and an offer to ship the vehicle. Why is the price so low, you might ask? Oh, they’re just moving out of the country and have to get rid of everything fast, or it belonged to an ex and they can’t stand the sight of it, or they’re in the military and can’t take it with them. They might ask that you pay through an escrow service that turns out to be fake, or request payment by wire transfer or mobile app. Some might even generously offer to only take half payment now, and you can pay the rest when the car arrives on the trailer (that they’ll ask you to cover the rental for).

Romance scammers will use their alleged military service or job in an oil field to justify why they can’t meet their victim in person, or even video chat (“the internet out here is really bad…”), which also ends up being the reason why the target has to wire money, or to receive electronic deposits and disburse it to multiple bank accounts (i.e. helping the scammer launder money).

Apartment scammers who claim to own a property they have no legal ties to will also give complex reasons (travelling for their career, etc.) why they can’t meet a renter in person and must collect the deposit by some non-reversible, non-traceable means. Other scammers will comb online classified ads and, instead of making an offer and paying like a normal buyer, start asking the seller to add gift cards, or send a check for thousands more than the item is worth (“that’s okay, just wire the difference back”). They might also come up with strange reasons they would pay to have an oak chest of drawers shipped to Oregon from Maine, instead of buying local.

There are things you need to know when it comes to transactions: what is it, how much is it, how the buyer is going to get it. When a buyer or seller starts telling you their life story and using it as a reason to dictate the terms of the transaction, it’s safest to assume you’re dealing with a villain.

Be Careful Using PayPal Friends and Family Payments

PayPal offers two options for sending money to someone: “Goods or Services” and “Friends and Family.”

“Goods and Services” is how you pay for, well, goods and services. For example, say you’re like me and you have a vinyl record habit; you would use PayPal Goods or Services to buy yet another grip of semi-collectible audible oddities through a website like eBay. If the seller doesn’t ship anything, or sends a damaged item and won’t issue a refund, you can submit a claim through PayPal and get reimbursed if the seller refuses to make it right. It protects you from scammers and bad merchants.

On the other hand, if you just need to send money to a family member, you can use the Friends and Family option. This allows the person sending the money to pay the fee for using the service, rather than the recipient (as with Goods or Services payments).

There is only one case in which you should use Friends and Family: when you’re sending money to an actual friend or family member. Why? Because this payment option doesn’t have the same protections. Once you send money, it’s gone. There are no claims or disputes. It’s like wiring money or using peer-to-peer money transfer apps like Venmo or CashApp.

This lack of recourse for the sender has led scammers to place ads for everything from electronics to rental properties, then attempt to convince interested parties into sending payment through PayPal Friends and Family. This allows them to steal money without the victim being able to claw any of it back through a claims process.

The second an online seller requests that you pay with Friends and Family, cut off all contact and report the merchant to whichever website they’re selling on.

Watch Out for This Venmo Scam

You’ve been using the peer-to-peer payment app Venmo to transfer money between your friends and family for a while without incident, when suddenly a payment for $1,000 from a complete stranger appears in your account, along with a message: “omg I sent that to the wrong person can you please please please return it to me?”

What do you do?

Thinking about how sick you would feel if you had accidentally sent such a large amount to the wrong person, someone you didn’t know, you might be inclined to send the money back. However, it is very likely that you are about to be the victim of a scam that will leave you a thousand dollars in the hole.

Here’s how it works: the stranger will use stolen credit card data to load a Venmo account, then send money to an intended victim at random, along with the message pleading for the funds to be returned. In the meantime, the stolen credit card is removed from the scammers Venmo account, which is then linked to a bank account controlled by the scammer.

If the victim returns the funds, they are immediately deposited into the bank account and withdrawn. Meanwhile, the credit card data theft is discovered and the destination of those stolen funds—the victim’s Venmo account—is charged back for the amount originally sent by the scammer.

You might even notice that this is just a high-tech version of the old counterfeit check scheme: “take this money, then send it back to me.”

So…what should you do if a large deposit from a total stranger shows up?

First, ignore the messages. Use Venmo itself to rectify the problem by creating a new support ticket. Indicate that you did not request these funds, and that you are concerned about fraud. From there, let Venmo handle it.

Whatever you do, don’t try to take the money. The theft will be discovered at some point, and you will be on the hook for those funds. Remember: they didn’t come from the scammer. They came from a victim who had their credit card information stolen. You could just ignore the funds and leave them in your Venmo wallet, but it’s best to be proactive and contact the company with your concerns.

You Don’t Get Something for Nothing

Sometimes we get specific around here, with lurid details of a single type of fraud and all its permutations and variations, and how to avoid it.

Other times, however, it is helpful to zoom out and talk big picture, core principles that can help you avoid getting swindled by a con artist.

Here is one such principle to keep in mind: nobody ever really gives anybody something for nothing.

Have you ever had a job where your function was literally to be on the payroll, but provide absolutely nothing of value to the employer? Of course not. You may have had jobs that were easy, but whenever you’re getting paid, it usually means you’re giving back something of value in return in the form of mental or physical energy. (Whether you’re getting paid enough is outside the scope of this article, of course.)

But of course, when you say something like that, people start coming up with exceptions. Sure, a friend might just give you something they’re not using anymore, or a parent might hand you a sawbuck for no reason in particular when you’re a kid. So let’s refine it a bit: strangers aren’t giving free money to people on the internet. Here are a few forms these scams can take:

  • A fake Instagram profile claiming to be a recent Powerball winner, giving away free gift cards to anyone who asks. Every photo of the (actual) winner was a screenshot taken from the same television news report. $700 million and he doesn’t even have his own camera.
  • A fake “money flipping” investment where you use a peer-to-peer app (Zelle, CashApp, etc.) to send a stranger money, then they magically multiply it by 10 and send it back. Naturally, only the first half of this transaction ever actually takes place.
  • Every single “Bill Gates/Jeff Bezos/Mark Zuckerberg/Warren Buffett/Elon Musk/etc. had an email lottery and you won” (or “…is giving $500 to everyone who shares this “) social post, forwarded email or text message ever created.
  • “$295 per assignment!” for 10 minutes of mystery shopper work. Sure, at first glance, this may not appear to be a “something for nothing” type of offer, but $295 for 10 minutes is $1,770 per hour, which is $3.7 million per year, and that seems a bit steep.

Every one of these schemes has a different goal. Some are just trying to get a social media profile thousands of likes or follows, then sell the profile to someone else. Others are just quick-hit, “take the money and run” arrangements, and of course the old counterfeit check scheme never really goes away. The key is to never fall into the trap of thinking that the internet is full of benevolent strangers simply aching to give money away to random people. It is not, and it never has been.