For most people, Valentine’s Day is an enjoyable holiday. Gifts are exchanged, chocolates are consumed and flowers are sent and received.
But for thousands of Americans, Feb. 14 is a day of regret and painful memories. Some struggle with a lingering sense of shame. There’s no way to pinpoint just how many women and men have fallen victim to romance scams — most go unreported — but they are legion.
Federal Trade Commission data released Tuesday reported that despite wide public awareness of the issue, victims of so-called "sweetheart scams" are on the rise. Last year, the agency received more than 21,000 reports about romance scams, an increase from the 8,550 complaints in 2015. The amount of money being squeezed from victims is on the rise, reaching $143 million in 2018.
The FBI tracks such scams differently, but reports similar trends. In 2017, the FBI’s Crime Complaint Center received reports of 15,000 victims of confidence fraud/romance.
The Better Business Bureau, too, keeps track. Its online scam tracker contains details of hundreds of romance scam incidents, including a Jan. 31 report from a Los Angeles woman who lost $110,000.
Closer to home, the sister of a central Ohio woman detailed on the scam tracker how her sibling had sold her home and car to send money to a man she’d never met in person. She didn’t have much, but was able to raise $30,000 for the scammer.
Christy Page, president and CEO of BBB of Akron, points to a 2018 investigation into romance scams that detailed the extent of the problem and the victims it leaves behind. On Wednesday, the BBB released another report warning that many scammers now are using their targets as mules to move funds around or deliver illegal drugs.
“Sometimes, it’s not just about catfishing for money,” Page said. “People who probably don’t know what their love interest is sending them money for … become involved in a money-laundering scheme.”
The fraudulent scheme ends up with the victim on the wrong side of the law, Page said. “They’re digging you a deeper hole.”
The new BBB report estimates that about 20 to 30 percent of romance scam victims are used as money mules. It details the 2014 case of an Australian woman who was used by her fraudulent love interest to move drugs. During a plane stop in Malaysia, the woman voluntarily went through customs. Crystal meth was discovered in a backpack she thought contained her scammer’s clothes.
She’s now in prison facing a death sentence.
Few scams reach such an extreme conclusion. But plenty of Ohioans are fooled enough to part with money.
In 2018, 70 Ohioans lost $3 million in romance scams, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost warned in a recent Twitter post.
The attorney general’s office said the scams can get quite elaborate. Scammers often use fake photos and documents to squeeze funds from their suitors. " ‘Sweetheart’ scammers may spend countless hours chatting with a victim before requesting money for bogus reasons such as airfare to visit," the office warns.
Even if the scam ends before money changes hands, victims are left with a sudden revelation that they’ve been lied to for weeks or months. The emotional scars remain for many victims, and Valentine’s Day becomes an annual reminder.
“We’ve got to get the word out that online dating [can be dangerous],” Page said. “People need to go in with their eyes wide open.”