How to Spot Romance Scams: 7 Telltale Signs to Watch Out For
Romance scams are on the rise. Here's how to protect yourself—and what to do if you fall prey to the fraud.
It was all going so well. You met online and fell madly in love, and if it weren’t for the fact that your new beau lives in another country, you’d probably be married by now. Which is why your online love is asking for some cash—just enough to move to your town and finally meet you in person. At least that’s what the person on the other end of the internet told you. It might be true, but there’s also a good chance you’ve unwittingly been hooked by one of the most common romance scams.
Run by con artists who fake romantic interest so they can swindle you out of money or steal your identity, romance scams are just one of many online scams. The crimes typically take place on dating apps and social media (though they can happen in real life), and they often involve catfishing and love bombing. From military romance scams to pig butchering (more on that ominous act in a moment), romance scams have one thing in common: They capitalize on our human need for love.
In fact, many people found themselves alone and looking for love during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, and scammers capitalized on this. The Federal Bureau of Investigation reports that romance scams are multiplying. In 2021, they cost more than 24,000 Americans about $1 billion, up a staggering amount from $304 million in 2020.
“There were widespread reports of loneliness, depression, substance abuse and alienation,” says Monica Eaton-Cardone, chief operating officer of fraud-management company Chargebacks911. “So it’s no wonder that romance scams have been on the uptick: If you’re desperate enough, you’re likely to overlook an awful lot of red flags.”
What are romance scams?
When a con artist fakes romantic interest in someone, crafting a too-good-to-be-true persona to weasel their way into the victim’s heart and steal their money, they’re conducting a romance scam. And pretty much everyone is fair game for this long con.
According to a poll conducted by Social Catfish, a company that uses reverse-search technology to prevent online scams, 75% of romance scam victims are college educated. That’s more proof that intelligence has nothing to do with whether you’ll get scammed.
Fraudsters prey on those who may be lonely, which is why romance scams disproportionately impact the elderly. Widows and widowers are particularly at risk after a loss. “Their desire for love and companionship is strong,” explains Barbara Santini, a psychologist and sex advisor. “Once the intimate trust is established, the scammer fulfills their original plan to empty the victim’s bank account and/or steal their identity.”
There are plenty of twists on the crime, but Donna Andersen, founder of LoveFraud.com and author of Red Flags of Love Fraud, says there are two basic types: the online swindle and the real-life romance scam. Both aim to take your hard-earned cash and may involve bank scams or wire fraud.
The online swindle
As the name suggests, these romance scams happen over the internet. “Perpetrators find someone online, seduce the target into falling in love with them and then convince the target to send money,” explains Andersen. “Often the perpetrator and the target never meet in person.”
Any legitimate dating site or social media platform holds potential for romance scammers, but scammers are big fans of Match.com, OKCupid, Plenty of Fish, Instagram, Facebook and Google Hangouts. And, of course, there’s Tinder. You may be familiar with the case of a con man who used the dating app to fleece women out of money, made famous by the Netflix true-crime documentary The Tinder Swindler.
Catfishing—or luring someone into a relationship by using a fake profile—is such a problem on dating sites that the Federal Trade Commission sued Match (which owns most of the major dating sites) for creating fake profiles and offering bogus guarantees to trick consumers into paid subscriptions.
The real-life romance scam
The second type of romance scam takes place in real life. “The perpetrator and the target do physically meet, have what the target believes is a relationship and perhaps even marry and have children,” explains Andersen.
But it’s all fake. The scammer’s agenda was always to live off the victim and take as much as possible. “Once the target’s money and other resources are gone, the relationship is usually over,” she says.
What are common examples of romance scams?
Once you figure out how to spot a romance scammer, their schtick becomes cliché and obvious. There are some common traits of these con artists, and many recycle the same personas and narratives. Lisa Schiller, director of investigations and communications for the Better Business Bureau of Wisconsin, says those engaging in online romance frauds build personas of people that they think would best attract the opposite sex.
Male scammers tend toward the persona of someone who is financially secure, such as business owners or professionals who work internationally. Women create a nearly opposite scenario. “Female scammers tend to create personas featuring attractive young women—under 30 years old—who are financially dependent and need someone to help them,” Schiller says. “They all describe themselves as honest or trustworthy.”
The member of the military
Scammers impersonating a member of the U.S. military often claim that there is some reason the military can’t provide needed funds—and thus the victim needs to help. They often claim to be deployed overseas and cannot meet in person, and they use stolen photos of military members to create fake profiles. They’ll say they need money for a plane ticket and other expenses to travel back to the United States. Naturally, they tell their victim they can’t wait to meet them and finally be together.
“The U.S. military says that they have heard from thousands of victims who thought they were dealing with someone in the armed services,” Schiller says.
The oil rigger
Another common example of a romance scam persona is someone working remotely on an oil rig. He may be making plenty of money—and will flaunt this. Yet he’ll also ask you to do financial favors for him. Oil rigger scammers often work in teams, though a single scammer may pose as many different people during the con.
Here’s how the big payoff works: One of the scammers will contact you with news that your love interest has been badly injured. He needs money to save his life, the message says, and while this is a big ask, you’ll get the money back as soon as possible. Distraught at the thought of losing your love, you help.
“When the scammer asks for money, it usually follows the same template: It’s a matter of life and death,” Eaton-Cardone says. “There’s no one else they can turn to. They don’t have any family or friends who can help them. And it’s amazingly urgent! Any delays could have cataclysmic consequences.”
Of course, before the “big ask,” scammers will make small requests to gauge whether you’re likely to be susceptible to the con when an “emergency” inevitably crops up.
The international worker
“The most common scam is the businessman or -woman who is away on business,” explains Shannon Peel, a brand storyteller who did her own real-life research on scammers when she started dating. One fraudster posed as a businessman from Canada who was in China buying antiques for his business. To see how scammers operate, Peel pretended to be excited about their life together and told him she was totally in love with him and couldn’t wait for him to get home.
“It took all of two days before he was asking me to send him $50,000 to get his new purchases through customs and come home to see me,” Peel says. “When I told him I couldn’t, he asked for $25,000. I said I didn’t have it—he told me to get a loan. When I said no, he said that is what people who love each other do. I said, ‘Yeah, no.'”
There are some major red flags that your long-distance lover is conning you: These romance scammers say they’ll be home in a month or two and suggest getting to know each other online. They may claim to be from the United States, yet they use awkward syntax and don’t seem to understand North American culture. “Their personal details change, and they can’t keep their stories straight,” Peel says. “And they behave in odd ways to give you proof of their story without you asking.”
The sugar mama or sugar daddy
Sugar mamas and sugar daddies prey on younger people, often students, nurses, teachers, single parents or others who might be in need of extra cash. The scammers tell the victim they’ll pay them a weekly allowance just to talk to them—not for sex or nude photos—but then they say they need a portion of it back for an unexpected bill.
“They send a check or money from a stolen credit card,” Peel says. “And you send the money back and get caught when the check bounces or the credit card company reverses the charge.”
Not only have victims lost the money they thought they were getting, but they’ve sent their own money to the scammer as well. “The worst part,” Peel says, “is if you can’t cover the payment you send, the bank can charge you with fraud. So not only does the scammer get your money, but you end up fighting a fraud charge where you could be thrown in jail.”
The widow or widower
This one usually starts with a sob story, like your would-be lover is a widow or widower, maybe with kids. Such highly emotional narratives serve an important purpose: The con artist wants to gain your trust, warns Rebecca Keller of Debt Bombshell.
These scammers are likely to prey on other widows or widowers, offering not only the illusion of romance but that of family, something the victim may be missing. (It’s a good reason for adult children of aging widows and widowers to learn about elder financial fraud.)
As with many other romance scams, this one is all about the money. And in this case, the scammer’s pleas for money are likely to be related to medical expenses.
The crypto pusher
Experts call this one “pig butchering,” and if that weren’t unappetizing enough, just wait until you hear what these scammers plan to do to your bank account.
One of the latest romance scams to hit the dating market, pig butchering is also a type of crypto scam—hence the nickname CryptoRom. In it, criminals (aka butchers) troll for potential victims (so-called pigs), who they proceed to swindle out of money. “Bad actors catfish unwary victims on social media, dating websites and apps like Tinder, Facebook Dating and WhatsApp,” says Jason Glassberg, co-founder of Casaba Security. “Some victims have even lost their entire life savings.”
The scammer usually contacts the victim via WhatsApp, though they may use a dating site like Hinge. After building trust, the criminal then pressures the victim to buy cryptocurrency assets and deposit them into a legitimate-looking crypto-trading app that’s controlled by the scammer.
Signs of a romance scammer
In addition to writing a book about romance scams, Andersen also has firsthand experience with the topic. Her husband claimed to be a successful entrepreneur and told her they’d make an incredible team. “I spent $227,000 funding his dreams of grandeur—none of them worked,” she says. “And once the money was gone, he was gone.”
Unfortunately, Andersen learned the signs too late, but she shares her romance scammer story so other potential victims can be spared. Once you know them, the traits of a romance scammer and their warning signs are easy to spot.
You never meet the person
Your new beau keeps making plans to see you but then doesn’t show up. Usually, he claims something terrible has happened—his mother died, for instance—which might lead him to ask you for money.
In the midst of love, these requests may seem legitimate. But take a step back, and you’ll spot a classic element of many romance scams: online-only contact. “Lots of romance scammers follow the same pattern: Geographically, they’re far away from you, so alas, they just can’t meet in person yet,” Eaton-Cardone says.
There’s a reason con artists rely so heavily on catfishing. They’ve created a faux persona that doesn’t match who they really are. Once you meet them in real life, the jig is up.
You don’t even see the person
Your new girlfriend can’t meet in person, but that’s understandable. She lives in another country, after all. At least you can video chat, right? Well, not if you’re being catfished. If you ask to Skype or FaceTime with your new love, she might stall, saying there’s something wrong with her camera. And if you finally land a video call, it’s probably so dark that you can’t see what the person looks like.
Noting the excuses above will help you identify a scammer.
“When you communicate with someone you’ve never met before, do they only communicate via text?” Eaton-Cardone asks. “Are they unable to talk over the phone? Do they always have an excuse for being unable to video chat? These are obvious warning signs.”
You feel like you met your soul mate
You seem to have the same interests, the same ideas and the same desires. It sounds great—but it’s no coincidence. The perpetrator has studied you on social media, figured out what you want in a partner and fashioned him- or herself into precisely what you are looking for.
“By its very nature, romance is serendipitous, and when you meet the right person and fall in love, it’s almost a source of pride to have met under weird, quirky circumstances—like in the supermarket checkout line or [when] your dogs get tangled together when you’re taking a walk,” Eaton-Cardone says. “So it’s human nature to apply this to the online world: A stranger messaged me out of the blue! They like me! It must be meant to be!”
You’re in a whirlwind romance
The romance scammer showers you with attention and affection. He or she wants to be in contact with you all the time and quickly makes plans for the future. You think it’s love, but it’s really love bombing. The objective is to get you emotionally hooked before you can escape.
“Some scammers even send flowers or other small gifts to their victims,” Schiller says. “They may text the victim 20 times a day, mirroring what everyone would want their ‘true love’ to share.”
The person indicates trust in you
Human beings are naturally inclined to reciprocate when they feel trusted. So if your online boyfriend or girlfriend says you’re the only one who can help them and that they know they can count on you, it’s to soften you up and gain your trust. When scammers feel you’re sufficiently primed, they’ll ask for money.
“Once initial contact with a victim has been made, the ‘relationship’ continues with a grooming phase, in which the fraudster learns about the victim’s life and builds trust,” Schiller warns. They might even show concern for the victim’s family and ask genuine-sounding questions.
Your new love values privacy
Because dating apps and sites threaten their nefarious mission, romantic scammers will suggest texting or emailing. They’ll tell you how much they value their privacy, often because they’re supposedly a high-profile person or public figure.
“The victim becomes more susceptible to scamming after giving up their phone numbers or primary email addresses,” says Santini. (Never mind the fact that hackers can do plenty with just your email or phone number!)
The focus on privacy comes with a major red flag: A con artist might say something like, “Let’s keep this just between us.” It’s not sweet or romantic; it’s a way to prevent you from getting wise to their tricks. The goal is to prevent you from talking to your friends and family about the relationship—those close to you might sense the scam before you do because they’re not emotionally hooked.
Directly or indirectly, your new love asks for money
If your boyfriend or girlfriend asks for any money at all, watch out. It doesn’t matter if it’s for an airplane ticket to see you, for medical care for their sick mother or for an investment opportunity. Asking for money is inappropriate in a romantic relationship, especially one that’s brand new—and especially when you’ve never met the person face to face.
“The scammer isn’t seeking a relationship and is trying to monetize the situation as quickly as possible,” Eaton-Cardone says.
How to protect yourself from romance scammers
Jordan Lye/Getty Images
It may sound old fashioned, but take it slow. Keller recommends never sending compromising photos and keeping your guard up when it comes to overly flirtatious messages. (Nudes and risqué texts make it easy to bribe you.) “If you meet someone on a dating site and they immediately want to exchange numbers after the first message, be cautious,” warns Robert Siciliano, CEO of cybersecurity company Protect Now.
Consider, too, the tone of the messages. “Be suspicious of anyone who tries to impress you with romantic [declarations] or statements that seem cliché,” Siciliano says. “And be wary if the guy you met online keeps showering you with too many compliments.”
There’s a huge cost to romance scams, and experts can’t say it enough: Never, ever send money to someone you just met online. It doesn’t matter if they need funds to visit you or offer up a sob story about a medical emergency. Just say no.
As suspicion creeps in, you might try to determine if the person you’ve been chatting with for weeks or months is a romance scammer. Siciliano has some advice: “Don’t talk about how much money you make or have,” he says. “If he or she keeps asking, tell them you are on a very tight budget.” If they keep pushing, they might not be a good partner, even if they’re not technically trying to scam you.
It may seem impossible to know who to trust, but what you really need to trust is your gut. If something feels off about a person, don’t brush your unease aside. If that’s not enough and you’re curious about how to catch a romance scammer, you can use Social Catfish or do a reverse image search to verify the person’s identity. Tinder also offers a background check service for its users, and you can stick to members whose profiles feature the check mark, indicating they’ve been verified.
And finally, stay current on the scams circulating on popular apps so you’ll be more likely to recognize a romance scam if it happens to you.
What to do if you suspect a romance scammer
So you think you’re dating a con artist. Don’t freak out. Follow the steps below to protect yourself.
- Report the scam to law enforcement. Many victims are reluctant to file a report, but it’s crucial to get the complaint on record. “Reporting it may help prevent someone else from being defrauded, because most fraudsters have many victims,” says Schiller. She suggests reporting romance scams to your local police department, the FBI, the Federal Trade Commission, the Department of Homeland Security and/or the Better Business Bureau.
- Report it to the dating app or social media site. Assuming you met your scammer online, report them on the dating app or social media site where you met. You might feel ashamed that you fell for the con, but now that you know how to expose a romance scammer, it’s important to share your experience with others. Romance scammers must be blocked from social websites and apps so they can’t defraud more people, though there’s a likelihood they’ll just create new fake identities.
- Block the person. You might find it difficult to block a suspected scammer, especially if you aren’t quite sure the relationship is a sham. The person has been manipulating you, and it may be understandably hard to cut off what feels like a dream relationship. But if you see warning signs of love scams, stop doing research, cut your losses and block the person on all platforms, plus on your phone and email. While you’re at it, change the passwords on your dating app and/or social media accounts, using strong passwords and setting up two-factor authentication so bad actors can’t gain access even if they’ve already gotten sensitive info out of you.
- Never send money. It’s a red flag if someone you are newly dating asks for money. And if the person wants to visit you but asks you to pay, it’s probably a scam. “Never send cash or money via payment methods which are untraceable, such as wire transfer, reloadable gift card and cash apps,” Siciliano warns. Need another reason to follow this rule? Consider the proliferation of gift card scams and fraud via Cash App, Venmo, Zelle and PayPal.
- Run. “Run as fast as you can,” advises Andersen, whose sentiment echoes that of all victims of romance scams and all cybersecurity experts. It might be hard—you might be heartbroken and believe you were really in love, but it wasn’t real. To mitigate any further damages, you need to cease all communication with the person and never look back.
- Monica Eaton-Cardone, chief operating officer of Chargebacks911
- Barbara Santini, psychologist and sex advisor with Peaches and Screams
- Donna Andersen, founder of Lovefraud.com and author of Red Flags of Love Fraud
- Lisa Schiller, director of investigations and communications for the Better Business Bureau of Wisconsin
- Shannon Peel, brand storyteller at MarketAPeel Agency
- Rebecca Keller, head of diversity, health and lifestyle at Debt Bombshell
- Jason Glassberg, co-founder of Casaba Security
- Robert Siciliano, CEO of Protect Now
- Federal Bureau of Investigation: “Internet Crime Report 2021”
- Federal Bureau of Investigation: “$1 Billion in Losses Reported by Victims of Romance Scams”
- Federal Trade Commission: “Romance scams take record dollars in 2020”
- Federal Trade Commission: “FTC Sues Owner of Online Dating Service Match.com”
- Social Catfish: “State of Internet Scams 2022”