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Romance scams are becoming more common -- and costly

With the rise of online dating sites and apps, so-called "romance scams" have become more prevalent. These scams can leave victims both financially and emotionally devastated. Seniors looking for love, companionship or just someone with whom to communicate -- often after becoming widowed -- are particularly vulnerable.

While the median financial loss by victims of romance scams is about $2,600, it's closer to $10,000 for people in their 70s and older. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Americans lost a combined total of $143 million in 2018 to romance scams. That's more than all other kinds of consumer fraud.

The number of romance scams reported to the FTC has risen from just over 8,500 in 2015 to over 21,000 last year. The true number could be considerably higher, since many people are ashamed to admit that they've fallen for a scam. Women, seniors and non-college-educated people are the least likely to report the scams.

While people of any age can be targeted, seniors are common prey because scammers assume they have a considerable amount of money. They will proclaim their love for someone they've "met" online and then begin to ask them for expensive items like computers and significant sums of money they say they need. They often claim they're abroad -- either for work or in the military. This can give them a good excuse for never meeting the person they've connected with online.

The FTC offers the following advice to those who use dating sites and apps:

  • Note any inconsistencies in things they say or their answers to your questions.
  • Use the "search by image" function on your search engine to help verify that the photo you're seeing on the dating site is legitimate. Reverse-image searches can determine whether a photo was taken from another source and/or altered.
  • Never send someone money or gifts if you haven't yet met them in person.
  • Seek the opinion of at least one friend or other trusted person in your life regarding your online "match."

If you suspect fraud, stop communicating immediately with the person. Report your suspicions to the dating site as well as the FTC. You have no reason to be embarrassed. You're doing the smart thing and helping keep others from becoming victims. If you've lost money, it may be worthwhile to talk with an attorney to find out what legal recourse you may have.

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