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A romance scam is a confidence trick involving feigning romantic intentions towards a victim, gaining their affection, and then using that goodwill to commit fraud. Fraudulent acts may involve access to the victim's money, bank accounts, credit cards, passports, e-mail accounts, or national identification numbers; or forcing the victims to commit financial fraud on their behalf. In many instances, a mail-order bride scam will also bait the victim into committing felonies to establish citizenship for the perpetrator.
Romance scammers create profiles using stolen photographs of attractive people, asking for others to contact them. This is often known as catfishing. Letters are exchanged between the scammer and victim until the scammer feels they have connected with the victim enough to ask for money. These requests may be for gas money, bus and airplane tickets to visit the victim, medical expenses, education expenses etc. There is usually the promise that the scammer will one day join the victim in the victim's home. The scam usually ends when the victim realizes they are being scammed or stops sending money. Victims can be highly traumatized and very embarrassed when they learn that their romance was a scam.
In some cases, online dating services are themselves engaged in misrepresentation, displaying profiles that have been fabricated using personal information from users who have not agreed to be depicted on the site or by presenting outdated or out-of-region profiles as current and local.
Scammers post profiles on dating websites, social media accounts, classified sites and even online forums to search for new victims. Upon finding a target, scammers lure them to more private means of communication, such as providing an e-mail address or phone number, to continue the deception. The fraud typically involves the scammer acting as if they've quickly fallen for the victim. This creates a false sense of attachment on the victim's part that so that the victim feels guilty refusing the scammer's requests for money.
In 2016, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation received reports about more than US $220 million being lost by victims of relationship scams. This was approximately seven times what was stolen through phishing scams and almost 100 times the reported losses from ransomware attacks.
Narratives used to extract money from the victims of romantic scams include the following:
- The scammer says their boss has paid them in postal money orders. The scammer asks the victim to cash the forged money orders, and then wire money to the scammer. The forged money orders incur debts against the victims
- The scammer says they need the victim to send money to pay for a passport[dead link]
- The scammer says they require money for flights to the victim's country because of being left there by a step-parent, or husband/wife, or because they are just tired of living in their country and somehow never comes, or says that they are being held against their will by immigration authorities, who demand bribes.
- The scammer says they have had gold bars or other valuables seized by customs and need to pay taxes to before they can recover their items and join the victim in his/her country[dead link]
- The scammer meets the victim on an online dating site, lives in a foreign country, falls in love, but needs money to join the victim in his/her country[dead link]
- The scammer says they are being held against their will for failure to pay a bill or requires money for hospital bills[dead link]
- The scammer says they need the money to pay for the phone bills in order to continue communicating with the victim
- The scammer says they need the money for their own or their parents' urgent medical treatment[dead link]
- The scammer says they need the money to complete their education before they can visit the victim[dead link]
- The scammer offers a job, often to people in a poor country, on payment of a registration fee. These are particularly common at African dating sites[dead link]
- The scammer actually is employed directly or indirectly by a website, with a share of the victim's member or usage fees passed on to the scammer
Some romance scammers seek out a victim with an obscure fetish and they will make the victim think that if they pay for the scammer's plane ticket, they will get to live out a sexual fantasy of theirs with the scammer. Other scammers also like to entice victims to perform sexual acts on webcam. They then record their victims, play back the recorded images or videos to them and then extort money to prevent them from sending the recordings to friends, family, or employers, often discovered via social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter etc.
The pro-dater differs from the other scams in method of operation; a face-to-face meeting actually does take place in the scammer's country but for the sole purpose of manipulating the victim into spending as much money as possible in relatively little time, with little or nothing in return. The scheme usually involves accomplices, such as an interpreter and a taxi driver, all of whom must be paid by the victim at an inflated price. Everything is pre-arranged so that the wealthy foreigner pays high amounts of money for accommodation, is taken not to an ordinary public café but to a costly restaurant (usually some out-of-the-way place priced far above what locals would ever be willing to pay), and is manipulated into making various expensive purchases, including gifts for the scammer such as electronics and fur coats.
The vendors are also typically part of the scheme. After the victim has left, the merchandise is returned to the vendors and the pro-dater and their various accomplices take in their respective cut of the take. As the pro-dater is eager to date again, the next date is immediately set up with the next wealthy foreigner.
The supposed relationship goes no further, except to inundate the victim with requests for more money after they return home. Unlike a gold digger, who marries for money, a pro-dater is not necessarily single or available in real life.
Another variation of the romance scam is when the scammer insists they need to marry in order to inherit millions of dollars of gold left by a father, uncle, or grandfather. A young woman will contact a victim and tell them of their plight: not being able to remove the gold from their country due to being unable to pay the duty or marriage taxes. The woman will be unable to inherit the fortune until she gets married, the marriage being a prerequisite of the father, uncle or grandfather's will. The scammer convinces their victim that they are sincere until they are able to build up enough rapport to ask for thousands of dollars to help bring the gold into the victim's country. The scammer will offer to fly to the victim's country to prove that they are a real person so that the victim will send money for the flight. However, the scammer never arrives. The victim will contact the scammer to ask what happened, and the scammer will provide an excuse such as not being able to get an exit visa, or illness of themselves or a family member. Scammers are very adept at knowing how to "play" their victims - sending love poems, sex games in emails, building up a "loving relationship" with many promises of "one day we will be married". Often photos of unknown African actresses will be used to lure the victim into believing they are talking to that person. Victims may be invited to travel to the scammer's country; in some cases the victims arrive with asked-for gift money for family members or bribes for corrupt officials, only to be beaten and robbed or murdered.
Impersonation of military personnel
A rapidly growing technique scammers are using is to impersonate American military personnel. Scammers prefer to use the images, names and profiles of soldiers as this usually inspires confidence, trust and admiration in their female victims. Military public relations often post information on soldiers without mentioning their families or personal lives, so images are stolen from these websites by organized internet crime gangs often operating out of Nigeria or Ghana. These scammers tell their victims that they are lonely, or supporting an orphanage with their own money, or needing financial assistance because they can't access their own money in a combat zone, etc. The money is always sent to a third party to be collected for the scammer. Sometimes the third party is real, sometimes fictitious. Funds sent by Western Union and MoneyGram do not have to be claimed by anyone showing identification if the sender sends money using a secret pass phrase and response, and can be picked up anywhere in the world. Some scammers may also use Bitcoin as an alternative payment method.[better source needed]
Who is most likely to become a victim
Sensitive people are more vulnerable to online dating scams, based on a study conducted by the British Psychological Society. Per their results, sensitive and less emotionally intelligent people are more likely to be vulnerable to online dating scams. This was the finding of a study by Dr. Martin Graff of the University of South Wales presented on Tuesday 26 April 2016 at the British Psychological Society Annual Conference in Nottingham, England. Dr. Graff said: "Perpetrators of dating scams simply set up false profiles on dating websites with the sole purpose of extracting money from their victims. The scammer first grooms a victim by expressing love for them before outlining their desperate circumstances. They then attempt to request money from the victim. Our study focused on why some individuals are more likely to become the victims of these scams than others."[better source needed]
In 2005 the ACCC and other agencies formed the Australasian Consumer Fraud Taskforce (ACFT). The site provides info about current scams, warning signs and staying safe.
- The Swedish film Raskenstam (1983; alternate title, Casanova of Sweden) is a fictionalized romantic comedy based on the true story of Swedish undertaker Gustaf Raskenstam, who seduced over 100 women and convinced many to support his various projects financially. He usually used newspaper contact ads, often with the headline "Sun and spring", which has become an idiomatic expression in Sweden. The film was directed by Gunnar Hellstrom, written by Hellstrom and Birgitta Stemberg, and executive produced by Hellstrom and Brian Wikstrom.
- Several films and television episodes depict the story of Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck, the American serial killer couple known as "The Lonely Hearts Killers", who are believed to have killed as many as 20 women during their murderous spree between 1947 and 1949. The pair met their unsuspecting victims through lonely hearts ads.
- The 2008 web series SPAMasterpiece Theater featured an episode "Love Song of Kseniya" that centered on a romance scam email spam read by website Boing Boing's Xeni Jardin.
General location trends
Many romance scams, money payment, Nigerian advance fee scam, blackmail and extortionist scam occur in the West African, Russian, Ukrainian, American and Trinidad and Tobago sites that rip off vulnerable westerners as of 2012 to 2016 according to Ukrainian authorities and the FBI.[excessive citations][better source needed]
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