Coronavirus Lockdowns Fuel Romance Scams

Middle-aged woman on a smartphone

Romance scams has been on the rise during the pandemic, with criminals using online resources to target lonely people isolated due to lockdowns. The money lost last year to romance scams amounted to £68 million in the UK and $304 million in the US.

Pandemic Perfect Cover for Romance Scams

The coronavirus pandemic has created a perfect cover for romance scams. Fraudsters are taking advantage of the loneliness and isolation people are feeling due to lockdowns. As well as the extra time people are spending socializing and seeking companionship on the internet since they are unable to go out.

A romance scam involves criminals tricking victims into sending money after having nurtured an online relationship with the victim. In such scams, the criminal and the victim have never met in person. Consequently, the victim doesn’t know the other person’s true identity, and in some cases, it isn’t just one fraudster involved. Instead, it can be a highly organized criminal gang working together in shifts to build the relationship with the victim.

These scams often start on online dating sites where cybercriminals setup fake profiles to target mostly middle-aged, vulnerable people. However, the fraudsters quickly ask to switch to social media apps like Facebook, messaging apps like WhatsApp, or text messaging. This is so there is no evidence of the scam.

They then spend months gaining the victim’s trust before asking victims for money. The criminals start by asking small amounts initially and then larger and larger sums. And thanks to the pandemic, these fraudsters have many plausible reasons for needing money. They often claim to be out of a job and deep in debt due to Covid and the lockdowns. Also, if the victim asks to meet, the fraudster has a ready-made excuse for not being able to do so. Fraudsters’ common excuse now-a-days is that they would love to meet but are unable to travel due to travel restrictions. Or they use the excuse that they have tested positive to Covid-19.

Different Types of Romance Scams

Victims of romance scams most commonly lose money through bank transfers. However, there has been an increase of money lost by victims through gift cards and vouchers. A report from the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) states that in 2020, the number of gift cards sent to fraudsters increased by nearly 70% in the US compared to the previous year. In addition, there are two other types of romance scams fraudsters are increasingly using, money laundering and identity theft.

With romance scams involving money laundering, fraudsters actually send money to the victim. They then ask the victim to pay someone they owe money to because they are unable to do so for various reasons. If the victim agrees to pass on the money, they essentially become money mules. The FTC found that victims were unwittingly laundering money originating from stolen unemployment benefits. Acting as a money mule, either knowingly or otherwise, is of course a crime.

Sometimes fraudsters don’t ask for money, instead they ask for information they can later use to commit identity theft. While chatting with the victim, the fraudster essentially just asks the victim personal questions. As the fraudster and the victim are building a relationship, personal questions are not unexpected. Thus, the victim is often unaware of what is happening. Once the criminal has gathered enough personal information, they steal the victim’s identity.

The Figures

UK Romance Scam Figures

Reports coming out of the UK state that there was a 20% increase in bank transfer fraud linked to romance scams in 2020 compared to 2019. Data from the UK’s Action Fraud showed that in 2020 £68 million was lost to romance scams in the UK. Action Fraud is the main reporting body in the UK. It also reported that in both 2019 and 2020, the amount of money lost to romance scams outstripped that stolen through online shopping fraud. In 2020, online shopping and auction fraud accounted for £63 million compared to £68 million for romance scams.

According to the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau (NFIB), which works alongside Action Fraud, it is middle-aged women that are typically targeted. In the UK, 55% of the victims are female, and 41% are between 40 and 49 years of age.

In a survey conducted by British multinational insurer, Aviva, 14% of people said they had been victims of romance scams. The survey also found that people aged between 25 and 34 are more likely to admit to having been a victim to romance scams. Older people are less likely to report romance scams due to embarrassment.

US Romance Scam Figures

Figures coming out of the US show a similar increase in romance scams to those of the UK. The FTC reports that in 2020, the money lost to romance scams reached $304 million, up 50% from 2019. The median amount lost to romance scam fraudsters in 2020 was $2,500. This is more than ten times the median lost across all other frauds in the US. FTC’s report also states that “people ages 20 to 29 saw the most striking increase, with the number of reports more than doubling since 2019.”

Furthermore, in the US like in the UK, it is middle-aged people who are most likely to lose money to romance scams. In addition, the report states that people 70 and older had the highest individual median losses, which amounted to $9,475.

Avoid Breaking the Bank as well as the Heart

To avoid breaking the bank as well as the heart, security experts advise to always remain vigilant and avoid providing too much personal information, such as address, date of birth or financial details.

Furthermore, FTC’s report provides the following advice:

  • Never send money or gifts to someone you haven’t met in person – even if they send you money first.
  • Talk to someone you trust about this new love interest. It can be easy to miss things that don’t add up. So pay attention if your friends or family are concerned.
  • Take it slowly. Ask questions and look for inconsistent answers.
  • Try a reverse-image search of the profile pictures. If they’re associated with another name or with details that don’t match up, it’s a scam.
Information technology expert
Grace is an information technology expert who joined the VPNoverview team in 2019, writing cybersecurity and internet privacy-based news articles. Due to her IT background in legal firms, these subjects have always been of great interest to her.