How romance scams work

In the last article I shared the shocking facts of how much money people who fall prey to romance scammers lose – think tens of millions – and just how common romance scams are on social media, especially dating sites.

bleeding heart

I always thought the people who fall for these scams must be incredibly naive and desperate until I was scammed way back when I first started dating again in midlife.

I’ve written here about being catfished, but I was saving the story of being targeted by an African romance scammer for the book behind this blog. Now that I am trying to shed 15,000 words from the book manuscript, I will serialise it here, so stay tuned if you’re interested in this seedy topic.

The nub of the story is that anyone can be conned.

It just depends on circumstances and how much you want to believe something. You know the saying ‘if it’s too good to be true then it probably is’ – at several stages I thought about getting that tattooed on my wrist as a harsh reminder.

Romance scams work on the premise that everyone on a dating site (or even on social media more generally) is lonely and longing to be loved. While this is obviously untrue, some demographics are more popular than others. I hate to say it, but people in midlife can be easy targets.

Imagine this: you’re fresh out of a long marriage, you don’t understand these new dating rules, you want to play around and have fun but you’re secretly worried about dying alone and never being loved again. You’re still idealistic and want to return to those halcyon days of young love and passionate romps along the beach or in the park. Whatever, you get my drift.

While this was never my particular weakness, scammers tap into all these feelings of vulnerability and hope that so many people on dating sites keep buried like tender shoots of a budding possibility.

What to look out for in your online interactions

If you want to read more, this and this are good summaries of the mechanics of a scam, but here’s my take:

  • A scammer always uses a fake profile – this can be meticulously researched, down to using photos stolen from social media, dubbed videos, fake airline tickets (you can read about all of these in my coming series from my real life), and tailored words that conform to a pattern. They may be posing as an US or UN solider, a businessman or engineer/high–status overseas worker (for men) or a nanny/teacher/beauty salon owner (women).
  • A scammer has a set template to work from that usually starts with tragedy – maybe they’ve recently been bereaved and are struggling with living as a widow/er, maybe they lost a child in an accident or been left as a sole parent to a young child, maybe they run a successful business but have struck hard times. Whatever the story, things start out bright and soon change.
  • A scammer escalates the ‘relationship’ right from the get–go – they are the penultimate love bombers and they know how to press your buttons. The good news is that they’re easy to spot and once you’ve been targeted, it will never happen again. Messaging may start off light and breezy but frighteningly soon it becomes a daily habit start starts on waking and ends on sleeping. Sometimes this is maintained by a team of scammers, or sometimes it’s just one who has plenty of spare time.
  • A scammer wants to get you off the site where he lured you in – they’ll move you to What’s App, Kik, email or Facebook Messenger or some other platform that is either anonymous or populated with the fake images/stories. They want you all to themselves so they can do their dirty work, which is conning you! It starts with compliments then declarations of strong feelings.
  • A scammer usually has poor grammar or is clearly not a speaker of your native language – watch out for odd expressions, mentioning God/Christianity or variations of overt faith, poor punctuation/spelling (think bunched up commas and old fashioned language). There may be a disconnect between their photo and their language use or ‘accent’.
  • A scammer always asks for money at some point – but not right away. They want to build the illusion first and that takes time. If they’re good at their craft, within a week or two they’ll launch the attack. The ploy may take longer and involve phone calls, Skype or video calls (without the screen, with a mysteriously broken or malfunctioning camera), lengthy emails and of course text messages at all hours of the day or night. Then they’ll strike disaster and ask you to rescue them.
  • A scammer always tries to be plausible – they don’t make it obvious at all. They’ve built up a fairytale populated with images from someone else’s page/profile who didn’t have their privacy settings property secured. They’ve established a rapport and lured you into a false sense of security. You think you ‘know’ this person, after all you’ve been having pillow talk or sexting or long phone conversations into the evening. You may have shared your deepest fears or feelings. You may believe that you’ve never felt this way before. You may also be quashing a teensy doubt that maybe they’re really not who they say they are – and so you want proof.
  • A scammer will usually go to great lengths to spin the story – my scammer was part of a group that had access to video dubbing and forgery technology. It’s not hard to manufacture an airline ticket if you do your research to align the flights with your location, and have the visual smarts to make it look real. Audio dubbing takes more effort, but the results can be used over and over so it’s a good investment. They will have tangible details that can sometimes be checked, and a problem that can only be solved with – you guessed it – your money. They’ve exhausted all their other options. You are their last hope and they’ll repay you (with interest) in the very near future. Don’t fall for it! Delete anyone online who asks for money.
  • A scammer may come back for seconds – even if they come clean and admit they’re a scammer, they might try for the next wave. “It started out as a scam because I’m so poor/desperate/mixing with the wrong crowd, but now I’ve fallen in love with you and I’m declaring my adoration as the real me.” It’s a worrying pattern and unlikely to be true, so cut ties and delete. Never send money to someone you haven’t met in person. Also watch out for blackmail that may arise out of sending illicit or compromising photos of yourself – another reason never to do this with your face showing (if at all).

Next time I’ll focus on the demographics of who is scammed, and the ghastly feeling when your stomach falls through your mouth and you realise you’ve been conned.

Please share your story or opinion in the comments or privately via my contact form.


Portrait of a romance scammer

Think you’re too clever to be scammed? I did too and yet back in the early, heady and careless days of online dating, I was. Romance scams involving shady conmen (and yes, conwomen) lurking on the interweb are rife, even (or especially) during Coronavirus times.

Forbes romance scams image
Image from

Ever wondered what makes someone do this, and what it takes to infiltrate someone’s life, preying on their vulnerabilities just to extract money? Sometimes it’s about more than money though and it becomes catfishing – my first experience of this painful manipulation was my last.

But straight–out romance scams do more damage than just a bruised ego or a few more rings of cynicism on the dying tree of hope for a genuine loving relationship.

In this series exploring romance scams I’ll share my own experience of being conned by a scammer in Botswana, which came flooding back to me today when I received an email following a contact through LinkedIn, where I have a business profile.

Romance scams on LinkedIn and non–dating social media platforms are on the rise. Here I’ll share what I learned through being emotionally (but not financially) manipulated by a scammer, how to spot a scammer and what to do if you’re scammed.

Most importantly, never give money to someone online that you’ve never met. If you’re using dating sites, the Australian Cyber Security Centre has a useful page called Online Dating 101.

Big money losses are common – but still unbelievable

According to America’s Federal Trade Commission (FTC), romance scams are the highest earning of all types of fraud in the US – likely echoed across the world. At $2,600, the median loss to romance scams is about seven times higher than for other frauds, which is a more apt word than ‘cons’ or ‘scams’. Defrauding people of hundreds or thousands of dollars is big business online and it affects anyone in a western country, male, female or other.

“In 2018, [there were more than] 21,000 reports about romance scams, and people reported losing a total of $143 million…These reports are rising steadily. In 2015, by comparison, people filed 8,500 reports with dollar losses of $33 million.,” says FTC’s Consumer Protection Data Spotlight.

The Identity Theft Resource Centre says that last year, romance scams led to losses of over US$200 million. “All internet scams have the potential to be cruel. After all, they are designed to trick you into handing over your money, your identity or both. However, perhaps one of the most heart-wrenching forms of online scam is the romance scam. Not only does the victim lose their money but they lose what they believed was a real chance at finding lasting love.”

Australian losses are no less shocking. In 2013, 28% of money was lost to romance or online dating scams, averaging $21,000 lost per person.

Romance scams over time
Image courtesy of

ACCC romance scams snip

Image courtesy of

Next time I’ll focus on how romance scams work and some common tactics and things to look out for.

I’d love to know in the comments or through my contact form your experiences of being scammed or encountering a romance scammer on social media.