Pwner of a Lonely Heart: The Sad Reality of Romance Scams

Valentine’s Day is a special holiday, but for victims of romance scams it is a tragic reminder, not only of love lost, but financial loss as well. According to the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), romance scams accounted for $230 million in losses in 2016.

Men and women may jokingly refer to their significant other as their “partner in crime,” but when it comes to romance scams, this joke may become a sad reality. In additional to financial losses, many scammers may convince their victims to become money mules or shipping mules, directly implicating them in illegal behavior.

Recently, Agari researchers identified a woman in Los Angeles that has sent nearly half a million dollars to a scammer that she has never even met. Even worse, this woman knowingly cashes bad checks and fake money orders on his behalf. The FBI has warned her to stop, yet it is unlikely she will do so.

The victims of romance scams are typically women in their 40s to 50s, usually divorced or widowed and looking for a new relationship. They are targeted by scam artists on dating web sites, who have the ability to refine their searches for women that fit their target demographics. 

The scam artists create profiles of charming and successful men to engage these lonesome women. Dating sites frequently ask what women are looking for in a partner, so it is easy for the scammer to say exactly what they need to seem like “Mr. Right.”

Once these scammers engage with their victims, there are an inevitable variety of excuses why they can’t meet – claims of overseas military service or mission trips are common, and help to further cement the supposed righteousness of the scammer. After a few months of correspondence, the scammer will claim a supposed tragedy: a lost paycheck or medical fees are common – and request a small loan. The typical loss in these scams is $14,000, not to mention the considerable psychological damage – victims of romance scams frequently withdraw from their social circles, embarrassed by the stigma.

Even worse, such as the case of our anonymous victim, some of these scams can continue on for years, with frequent requests for financial support. Once trust is established with their victims, these scammers may also to begin to use them as “mules” to cash fake checks, make deposits, accept shipment of stolen goods, and more. In the case of our anonymous victim, her family has pleaded with her to stop sending her suitor more money, and the FBI has warned her that her behavior is illegal; and yet she persists.

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Markus Jakobsson, Chief Scientist for Agari, has spent more than 20 years as a security researcher, scientist and entrepreneur, studying phishing, crimeware and mobile security. Prior to Agari, Jakobsson spearheaded research in malware, authentication, fraud, user interfaces and security technologies for Qualcomm. He also co-founded three digital startups – ZapFraud, RavenWhite and FatSkunk. Jakobsson has held key roles as Principal Scientist at PayPal, Xerox PARC and RSA Security. He holds more than 100 patents and is a visiting research fellow of the Anti-Phishing Working Group (APWG). He holds a Ph.D. in computer science from the University of California, San Diego and master’s degrees from both the University of California, San Diego and Lund University in Sweden.

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