The FBI Warns of Criminals Using Online Dating Sites to Target Victims and Recruit Money Mules

The FBI is advising consumers to be wary when using online dating sites after the agency saw a 70 percent annual increase in reported romance scams. Cybercriminals are reportedly using online dating sites to trick victims into sending money, providing personal and financial information, or even unknowingly acting as a money mule by relaying stolen funds. Learn these tips for keeping yourself—and your financial accounts—better protected when meeting people online.

$143 Million Lost to Romance Scams in 2018

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) says it logged more than 21,000 reports of romance scams in 2018 with losses totaling $143 million—more than any other consumer fraud type identified.

Romance scams, also called confidence scams, are when a bad actor deceives a victim into believing they have a trusted relationship and then uses the relationship to persuade the victim to give money, personal and financial information, or items of value to the perpetrator. The initial grooming phase can last for days, weeks, or even months, and by that time, the victim may be extremely vulnerable to the scam.

Techniques of romance scammers are varied and may include:

  • Claims to be from the US but currently living, working, or traveling abroad
  • Claims to be a US service member deployed overseas
  • Reports a sudden personal crisis that requires financial help
  • Asks for assistance with a personal transaction, like opening a bank account or shipping merchandise
  • Claims to be stuck in another country
  • Pushes for intimate photos
  • Offers to send money, which could be a way to get the victim’s bank details or other financial information

The FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) reports that victims of romance scams come from all age, education, and income brackets. However, elderly people, women, and those who have lost a spouse are often targeted.

A New Twist: Dating Sites Used to Recruit Money Mules

Fraudsters have used dating sites to find and target victims for some time, but there is a new twist on romance scams that involves international criminal networks using dating sites to recruit money mules.

In one example provided by the FBI’s IC3, a bad actor may claim to be a European or American citizen living abroad. After months of developing the victim’s trust, the scammer may ask the victim to open a bank account, possibly under the guise of a business opportunity. The victim is then asked to receive and send money from that account.

These bank accounts, the FBI says, may be used to facilitate criminal activities. Even if the account is flagged and closed by the financial institution, the scammer may continue to scam the same victim by asking them to open a new account or may begin grooming a new victim.

Steps to Better Protect Yourself from Romance Scams

Fortunately, there are steps you can take to keep yourself—and your financial accounts—better protected when meeting new people online.

  • Keep your profile anonymous - Experts recommend choosing a dating site username thoughtfully, so that it doesn’t reveal too much personal information. Specifically, it’s best not to include a last name, place of work, or any other identifying information either in your profile or when first making contact with another user.
  • Research potential connections - Consider conducting a Google search on new contacts to make sure they are who they say they are. Experts recommend doing an internet search using the person’s first name, last name, and location. It’s also a good idea to do a reverse Google image search on the contact’s photo, as romance scammers often use stolen images in order to avoid being caught.
  • Pay attention to social media profiles - A contact’s social media profiles may reveal signs that they are a scammer. For example, it could be a sign of fraud if the individual has no social media presence, or if they have multiple social media accounts, such as two Instagram accounts. Also consider—do they have very few friends or connections on social media, do they have few photos or only professional-looking headshots, or have they made no posts or updates? These could be potential red flags.
  • Be wary about sharing contact details - It’s best to keep contact details private both on your profile and during initial conversations. This includes your email address, home address, and phone number. If and when you decide to share your email, consider creating a separate and anonymous email address. In general, experts advise individuals not to give out too much personal information to another person before meeting them face-to-face. Of course, always follow best practices for staying safe when meeting an online connection face-to-face for the first time.
  • Never send money or share financial information - The FBI advises that individuals should never send money to someone they met online, especially via wire transfer. The agency goes further to advise consumers to never share credit card numbers or bank account information with another person without verifying their identity and to never share a Social Security number or other personally identifiable information with someone who doesn’t need that information, as it could be used to access financial accounts.
  • Set up a phone or video chat early on - Make it a point to have a phone conversation or video chat with new contacts early in the relationship. If the person refuses or gives elaborate excuses, it could be a scam. Experts say it’s best never to meet someone in person unless you have first been able to video chat.
  • Be wary of anyone claiming to be a deployed soldier - The US Department of Defense has warned about romance scams in which online predators claim to be deployed active-duty soldiers. Victims have reported being scammed on legitimate dating apps and social media sites by imposters requesting money for fake service-related needs like transportation, communications fees, processing, and medical fees.
  • Talk to a trusted friend or family member - Talk to someone you trust about new online connections, and pay attention if they express concern.

What to Do If You Think You Have Been a Victim

If you believe you have been a victim of a confidence or romance scam, the FBI recommends the following actions:

Additional Resources