Broken Hearts, Empty Wallets: Seniors Catfished for $139M

FTC report says there was a 'surge' in 2020 in romance scams bamboozling Americans 60 and over
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Oct 22, 2021 5:20 PM CDT
Dating Scam 'Surge' Bamboozled the Lonely During Pandemic
Do your research before getting more deeply involved with an online love interest.   (Getty Images/Tero Vesalainen)

(Newser) – Last month, the Department of Justice announced money laundering and wire fraud charges brought against nearly a dozen "romance scammers," and that's only scratching the surface of what the Washington Post calls a "surge" in such deceptions made worse by the pandemic, especially for the senior set.

  • The numbers: In its annual "Protecting Older Consumers" report, the Federal Trade Commission notes that in 2019, Americans 60 and older reported losing $84 million to fake lovers—a number that jumped to $139 million in 2020. An FTC release notes that's "the highest total reported loss of any scam category" the agency tracks, and it might be an underreporting, as some people may have been too embarrassed, scared, or otherwise reluctant to report.
  • The process: This financially nefarious form of catfishing starts with someone setting up a fake profile on a dating app or social media site, luring an unsuspecting person into an online relationship, and then, over time, persuading the victim to send gift cards or cash, often by wire transfer.
  • A pandemic assist: Although this kind of ruse was used long before COVID hit, the coronavirus made things worse. Or easier, if looking at it from the perpetrator's perspective. For starters, people—especially isolated and lonely people—likely spent more time online during the pandemic, upping their odds of being approached by a scammer in the first place. Then, if they were unlucky enough to get caught up in a deceptive relationship, many victims believed smooth-talking con artists who'd say they couldn't meet up in person because they were trying to stay safe from the virus, or had had a positive COVID test.
  • Aftermath: Once the victims catch on that they've been had, "they are devastated financially and emotionally," especially as these scams can go on for months or years, Kathy Stokes, head of the AARP's fraud prevention unit, tells the Post. "We had victims call the help line who have lost half a million dollars."
  • Advice: The FTC offers plentiful resources on such romance scams, including articles on the subject, typical fibs these catfishers tell—if they say they're working on an oil rig or in the military, that could be a red flag—and how to avoid getting scammed. WWLP rounds up its own tips, advising consumers to keep personal info close to the chest; do plenty of research on cajoling correspondents (including a reverse image search on profile pics); and, most importantly, do not send money, no matter how many sweet nothings pop up on the computer or smartphone screen.
(Read more dating stories.)

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