Feds: 'Romance scams' cost victims $143 million in 2018

More than 21,000 Americans told the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) they fell victim to romance-related scams in 2018, losing a total of $143 million, the agency says.

The FTC said Tuesday it received more reports of "romance scams" than other consumer-facing fraud last year and that schemes involving dating or courtship are quickly rising in popularity.

Romance-related schemes involve an alleged scammer setting up a fake personal profile on social media or dating websites to woo potential victims. Scammers then ask their smitten targets to send them money for fake emergencies or other major expenses.

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“Once these fraudsters have people by the heartstrings, they say they need money, often for a medical emergency or some other misfortune,” the FTC wrote in a report released days before Valentine's Day.

“They often claim to be in the military and stationed abroad, which explains why they can’t meet in person. Pretending to need help with travel costs for a long-awaited visit is another common ruse.”

Scammers typically ask for the money through gift cards and other reloadable cards, which are quicker, more anonymous than other forms of payments and harder to reverse, according to the FTC.

The FTC said that romance-related scams are among the costliest and most popular schemes targeting Americans. The median reported loss to a romantic scam was $2,600, roughly seven times more than the median loss across other types of fraud.

The agency also said that reports of romance-related scams jumped from 8,500 in 2015 to more than 21,000 in 2018, with the total cost rising from $33 million to $143 million in the same time.

Such scams primarily target Americans ages 40 to 69, who fall victim to romantic schemes twice as often consumers in their 20s, according to the FTC. Older victims also lost the most money, reporting a median loss of $10,000 from romantic scams.

The FTC said consumers should never send money or gifts to suitors they’ve never met in person and suggested consumers tell loved ones and friends about online relationships and use reverse-image searches to see if they can trace a profile picture from scammers back to other social media accounts.