How Scams Work?
The Impersonation Romance Scam
Almost all scams, frauds, or confidence tricks or schemes work along similar flows or have characteristics in common.
Almost all socially engineered scams or fraud have some basic common factors:
- A stranger contacts you – by email, phone, or online
- They use photos & identities of real people to scam
- A request to connect – in the case of personal contacts OR a business offer
- There is a special situation or emergency with a historical backstory
- Communications is difficult – technical excuses, security requirements, bad timing
- There is urgency – the emergency is happening now and help is needed, or this offer is only valid for a short time
- Often it begins with small steps
- As the relationship unfolds larger demands are made (money usually)
- It may involve creating or giving access to financial accounts
- The victim is told to keep it secret – it is confidential, there is danger, or others would not understand
- As the money runs out the tone changes – may result in threats, or making the victim feel they are betraying the scammer
- During the different stages of the connection it seems like different people are talking with the victim
- If the victim confronts the scammer there will be denials but eventually, the scammer goes silent
- The scammer comes back after a time (though usually not the same one)
How This Scam Works
Dating and romance scams often take place through online dating websites, but scammers may also use social media, online games or apps, or email to make contact. They have even been known to telephone their victims as a first introduction. These scams are also known as catfishing. [Note catfishing is a derogatory term against women – but is used because it remains in common use]
Scammers typically create fake online profiles designed to lure victims in. They may use fictional or fake names, or falsely take on the identities of real, trustworthy people such as military personnel, aid workers, professionals or business people working abroad, or other prominent celebrities or people.
Dating and romance scammers will express strong emotions for the victim in a relatively short period of time (days or a couple of weeks), and will suggest that the victim move the communication away from the website to a more private channel, such as WhatsApp or Google HangOut, phone, email or other instant messaging. They often claim to be from the victim’s own country or another western country, but traveling or working overseas.
Scammers will go to great lengths to gain the victim’s interest and trust, such as showering the victim with loving words (almost at once), sharing personal information, and even sending the victim gifts (typically using stolen credit cards). They may take weeks or months to build what may feel like the romance of a lifetime and may even pretend to book flights to visit the victims, but never actually come – offering one excuse after another.
Once they have gained the victim’s trust and the victim’s defenses are down, they will ask (either subtly or directly) for money, gifts, or banking/credit card details or access.* They may also ask the victim to send pictures or videos of yourself, possibly of an intimate nature.
Often the scammer will pretend to need the money for some sort of personal or business emergency. For example, they may claim to have a severely ill family member who requires immediate medical attention such as an expensive operation, or they may claim financial hardship due to an unfortunate run of bad luck such as a failed business or robbery in the street. The scammer may also claim they want to travel to visit you, but cannot afford it unless the victim is able to lend them money to cover flights or other travel expenses.
In the case of military impersonations, the scammer will claim they need money to purchase leave time or to exit the military to be with the victim. They will often claim to be on a “Peace-keeping” mission and in a war zone.
Sometimes the scammer will send the victim valuable items such as laptop computers and mobile phones, and ask that they are to resend them somewhere else. They will invent some reason why they need the victim to send the goods but this is just a way for them to cover up their criminal activity.* Alternatively they may ask the victim to buy the goods themselves and send them somewhere. The victim might even be asked to accept money into their bank account and then transfer it to someone else.*
* Warning – the above scenarios are very likely to be forms of money laundering which is a criminal offense. Never agree to transfer money or merchandise for someone else that you only know online!
Sometimes they will blend different types of scams together to take advantage of the relationship that has been developed. The scammer may integrate what is known as a 419 – Advance Fee Fraud scams – the scammer will tell the victim about a large amount of money or gold or other assets that they need to transfer out of their current country or some other place and offer the victim a share of it. They will tell the victim they need some money to cover administrative fees or taxes.
In other cases, the scammer may integrate an investment scam into a relationship since they know that a victim infatuated with a relationship will be less critical in financial decision-making.
The Impact On Victims
In rare cases, dating and romance scammers can also pose a risk to the victim’s personal safety as they are often part of international criminal networks (though this is very unlikely with African or Indian-based scams). However. scammers many times attempt to lure their victims overseas, putting them in very dangerous situations that can have tragic consequences – that can result in capture or death.
Regardless of how the scam was discovered, the victim could end up losing large amounts of money. Online dating and romance scams cheat victims around the world out of hundreds of billions every year. The money sent to scammers is almost always impossible to recover. Also, it frequently ends up in the hands of terrorist or hostile nations such as Iran or North Korea.
In addition, victims very often suffer long-lasting emotional betrayal at the hands of someone the victim thought loved them. This results in trauma, that can be severe leading to PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). All scam victims are encouraged to seek local trauma counseling or therapy and join a true victims support group, such as those SCARS offers or a local support group.
Warning Signs – Red Flags
A prospective victim meets someone online or on a dating website and after just a few contacts they profess strong feelings for the victim and asks to chat with the victim privately. If they met on a dating site they will try and move away from the dating site and communicate via chat (Google Hangout or WhatsApp) or email. Sometimes by phone or video also – though the videos will almost always be expertly faked.
The scammer’s profile on the internet dating website or their Facebook or Instagram profile is not consistent with what they tell the victim. For example, their profile picture looks different from their description of themselves, or they say they are university educated but their English is poor.
After gaining the victim’s trust – often waiting weeks, months, or even years – they tell the victim an elaborate story and ask for money, gifts, or the victim’s bank or other financial accounts/credit card details.
NOTE: Why would a scammer wait months or even years before “Closing the deal” and asking for money? Scammers, even the teams of scammers that run these scams have a time limitation. So they will queue up victims to “slow burn” for an extended period while they concentrate on other quick cash-flow victims. Then they will come back to the slower-paced prospects that they have maintained.
Their messages are often poorly written, vague, and escalate quickly from introduction to love.
If the victim doesn’t send money straight away, their messages and calls become more desperate, persistent, or direct. If the victim does send money, they will step it up and continue to ask the victim to send more.
They don’t keep their promises and always have an excuse for why they can’t travel to meet the victim and why they always need more money.
Victims Should Protect Themselves
FIRST RULE: NEVER SEND MONEY TO SOMEONE YOU HAVEN’T MET IN PERSON.
Always consider the possibility that the approach may be a scam, particularly if the warning signs listed above appear.
Try to remove the emotion from the decision-making no matter how caring or persistent the prospective partner is.
Do an image search (TinEye.com, Google.com, Yandex.com, Bing.com) of your admirer to help determine if they really are who they say they are. Also, look at the SCARS galleries in our Impersonation Galleries (click here) or our Photo Galleries on scammerphotos.com
Be alert to things like spelling and grammar mistakes, inconsistencies in their stories, and others signs that it’s a scam like their camera never working if you want to Skype or Zoom each other.
Be cautious when sharing personal pictures or videos with prospective online partners, especially if they have never met been before. Scammers are known to blackmail their targets using compromising material (this is called Sextortion).
If the victim agrees to meet a prospective partner in person, be sure to tell family and friends the details or where the victim is going and all details just in case. It is wise to do this for ALL ONLINE DATING AS WELL.
SCARS and law enforcement agencies strongly recommend that NO VICTIM travels overseas to meet someone they have never met before. Consider carefully the advice of the U.S. Department of State Travel Advisories (Travel Advisories (state.gov)) before making any plans.
Be VERY wary of all requests for money. Never send money or give credit card details, online account details, or copies of important personal documents to anyone you don’t know or trust.
Avoid any arrangement with a stranger that asks for up-front payment via money order, wire transfer, international funds transfer, pre-loaded gift card or electronic currency, like Bitcoin. It is rare (almost impossible) to recover money sent this way.
If you sent money via a bank wire transfer there may be options for recovery but the victim must act fast. Read more here.
Do not agree to transfer money for someone else: money laundering is a crime.
Be very careful about how much personal information you share on social network sites. Scammers can use that information and pictures to create a fake identity or to specifically target a victim with a scam.
Have you been scammed?
If you think you have been scammed, read our 3 Steps Guide for New Victims here.
Spread the word to your friends and family to protect them.
After all, the next victim could easily be one of them!