February is the month of romance, but love and companionship may also involve a scam. According to the FBI, romance or confidence scams were responsible for more than 23,000 reported victims losing over $605 million in 2020, compared to 12,500 victims and $203 million in losses during 2015.
A romance scam is when a swindler uses a fake identity to gain a victim’s trust and affection. The introduction of the new romantic interest or friendship may occur online, via a dating app, social media, random text message, phone call or email. Usually, the romantic interest never meets in person, though numerous plans for a gathering have been made and rescheduled with excuses. The fake identity could be that of a member of the military, someone wealthy overseas, an overseas construction worker, or one of many other fake personas.
These professionals quickly gain a victim’s trust and express many commonalities with their victim. As the relationship evolves, the scammer will continue to reel their victim in with promises and gifts of love. After trust is established, the romantic interest develops a story about a sick child, being stranded in a foreign country, legal fees, being held against their will, or other urgent situations where large amounts of money are needed quickly. The scammer may also ask for personal information to steal the victim’s identity or assets, or ask the victim to launder money by transferring or moving money illegally for someone else, also known as a money mule.
The senior financial exploitation law recently enacted in Iowa allows brokerage institutions to temporarily freeze an account where they fear the owner may be the victim of a scam and authorizes the Iowa Insurance Division to investigate reports of suspected financial exploitation.
Avoid being a victim by following these simple rules:
Stop. Think. Call. Discuss non-traditional investments or the request for money with a trusted source.
Double-check before you invest. Ensure anyone trying to sell you an investment is properly licensed as well as the investment being sold.
Be cautious posting on social media or dating sites, and beware of online investment solicitations. Don’t click on links in emails or text messages.
Never give out your personal banking information or send money to someone you don’t know, especially if you haven’t met in person.
Research the online profile and picture to see if it has been used elsewhere or on multiple online profiles.
Beware of someone trying to isolate you from your friends and family.
If an investment pulls at your heartstrings, walk away.
The Iowa Fraud Fighter program is a source of information to shield your savings from scammers. You can also increase your financial literacy with the IID Save4Later free educational website.
Anyone can be a victim. Knowing how to protect yourself is the first step in prevention.
Sonya Sellmeyer is consumer advocacy officer for the Iowa Insurance Division.