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SCARS™ Insight: FBI Warning About Scammers Recruiting Mules

Cybercriminals Use Online Dating Sites To Conduct Confidence/Romance Scams And Recruit Money Mules


What Is Confidence/Romance Fraud? (Also Know As A Romance Scam)

Confidence/romance fraud (Romance Scams) occurs when a scammer deceives a victim into believing they have a trust relationship—whether family, friendly, or romantic—and leverages the relationship to persuade the victim to send money, provide personal and financial information, or purchase items of value for the scammer. In some cases, the victim is persuaded to launder money on behalf of the scammer.

Scammers often use online dating sites to pose as U.S. citizens located in a foreign country, U.S. military members deployed overseas, or U.S. business owners seeking assistance with lucrative investments.

The Scam Threat

In 2017, more than 15,000 people filed complaints with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3») alleging they were victims of confidence/romance fraud and reporting losses of more than $211 million. In 2018, the number of victims filing these complaints increased to more than 18,000, with more than $362 million in losses—an increase of more than 70 percent over the previous year. Of course, these reports are a small fraction of the real numbers, since more than 90% of victims never report the crime out of shame.

In 2018, confidence/romance fraud was the seventh most commonly reported scam to the IC3 based on the number of complaints received, and the second-costliest scam in terms of victim loss. Again the FBI’s can only report what is reported to them.

IC3 receives victim reports from all age, education, and income brackets. However, the elderly, women and those who have lost a spouse are often the most targeted and are easily found on social media.

The Scammer’s Methods

After establishing their victims’ trust, scammers try to convince them to send money for airfare to visit, or claim they are in trouble and need money. Victims often send money because they believe they are in a romantic relationship.

For example, a scammer claims to be a U.S. citizen living abroad. After a few months of building a relationship with the victim, the scammer asks the victim to send gifts or electronics to a foreign address. After a few more months, the scammer expresses a desire to return to the U.S. to meet the victim. The scammer claims not to have the money to pay for travel and asks the victim to wire funds. In some cases, the scammer claims the wired funds did not arrive and asks the victim to resend the money.

Some fraudsters provide a fake travel itinerary. When they don’t arrive as scheduled, they claim they were arrested, and ask for more money to post bail. They may also request more money for travel or to recover assets seized during their “arrest.”

Requests for money may continue until the victim is unable—or unwilling—to provide more.

Send In The Mules

In some situations the victim may be unknowingly recruited as a “money mule;” someone who transfers money illegally on behalf of others.

Scammers groom their victims (massively manipulates them) over time and convince them to open bank accounts under the guise of sending or receiving funds.

Grooming is defined as preparing a victim to conduct fraudulent activity on their behalf through communications intended to develop a trust relationship (manipulation).

These accounts are used to facilitate criminal activities for a short period of time. If the account is flagged by the financial institution, it may be closed and the scammer will either direct the victim to open a new account or begin grooming a new victim.

Romance Scamming Trends

In other situations, the scammer claims to be a European citizen or an American living abroad. After a few months of developing trust, the scammer will tell the victim about a lucrative bu