Published July 27, 2017.
A real heartbreaker.
For months, you've been chatting online with an amazing woman in the United Kingdom. You can practically hear her delightful accent.
She faithfully returns your texts with compliments, and you've grown fond of your new friend. But she doesn't have the money to visit the United States and meet you in person. Can you help? she texts.
Or maybe she says she's getting an inheritance, but it requires her to cover steep legal fees upfront before receiving the money. Would you be willing to lend her the money in exchange for a check you can cash later?
What's love got to do with it?
Welcome to the "sweetheart scam," one of the most common and enduring frauds on earth, where con artists invest in online 'relationships' to score huge payoffs.
In 2020 alone, there were 35,000 reports of the sweetheart, also know as romance, scam, according to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission. During the Covid-19 pandemic — as millions of people stayed isolated at home — victims lost $305 million to online "friends" they grew to care about, but had never actually met.
Unfortunate, to be sure. But in your case, of course, you're confident that your new online friend is real. Maybe you were matched on a dating website. Maybe you've been chatting for years without mixing love and money. And while you've never had the opportunity to meet your friend, he or she has sent you photos to verify their identify.
"I've seen the sweetheart scam from every angle," says James Fuher, STCU fraud prevention manager. "Patient scammers will carry on an online relationship for months or years to win your confidence."
"They'll join dating websites, then troll the site until someone with interest clicks. The con man (or woman) builds up your trust by emailing and messaging. It's that trust — and the excitement of a new relationship — that makes smart people ignore the red flags of a scam."
"Patient scammers will carry on an online relationship for years to win your confidence," Fuher says.
"In one example," Fuher recalls, "the crook used the name 'Roger Moore,' and claimed he was an antiques dealer in Nigeria. I saw multiple people fall victim to that scam."
Scammers will maintain frequent communication with their victims through email, instant messaging, and text. "They work on the emotional appeal — the little things that make a relationship deepen," Fuher says. They invest a lot of time and energy into the scam, because the payoff can be huge.
"Victims will send off all their savings, or will accept a check from the fraudster as repayment. But those checks will be counterfeit."
Here's looking at you, sweetheart.
Scams can vary, but there are common signs of the sweetheart scam that everyone should know.
For one, the scammer will be unable or unwilling to meet in person, and something always seems to keep coming up that keeps them at a distance. They often give generic information about where they're from or what they do, or they say they're working outside the country.
The scammer may send you a copy of their passport or photos, but the details don't quite add up. That's because the passport is fake or the photos are stolen from other websites.
The sweetheart scam also is an equal-opportunity crime, as men and women of all ages are susceptible.
"In the end, it all comes down to the same thing: somebody you've never met in person will ask you to send money," Fuher says. "That's when you have to take a cold, hard look at your online relationship and make sure you're not about to become a victim."
Call for help.
If you've been scammed — or are simply wondering if your "friend" might be a con artist — take action immediately:
- Call your credit union or bank to ask for help;
- File a complaint with the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center.