JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – As if being the victim of romance fraud isn't enough, now scammers are escalating by turning their victims into criminals themselves.
The Better Business Bureau is warning anyone who plans to use a dating website that romance scams are being taken to another level. The consumer agency found fraudsters are exploiting their fake relationships with their victims -- having them become unwitting accomplices to fraud, known as "money mules."
According to a new BBB report released Wednesday, 20 to 30 percent of romance scam victims were used as “money mules” in 2018 alone, with these victims numbering in the thousands.
Money mules act as financial middlemen in a variety of scams, laundering money from other victims by receiving money or goods purchased with stolen credit cards and sending them on to the fraudsters, often out of the country.
One elderly Columbia County woman fell victim to becoming a money mule because she was enamored with an online friend, the Sheriff's Office said.
Detective Andrea Useche said the woman kept sending the man money and making transfers for him. The only way her family was able to stop her was to have her arrested for criminal conspiracy.
“It’s almost like brain washing,” Useche said of how the victims become money mules. “They are receiving money, they are being told it's from so and so, and they’re being told to send the money over here, and they’re given a whole line as to what they are doing. They think they are doing a favor for a person they are in love with.”
'Money mule phenomenon adds insult to injury'
The BBB found in crimes like fake check scams, grandparent scams, even illegal drug transportation, the money mules used are frequently romance scam victims, too.
Statistics on romance scams
They can be turned into money mules when the romance victim has no money or has already given all of their money to the scammer. The victim may be motivated to take part for a variety of reasons, including love, fear or financial compensation for their own losses. By providing this type of aid to the fraudster, the victim aids and abets a variety of other frauds, muddying the scope of the fraud and the identity of the real perpetrator.
Many of the victims are elderly, which is where family and friends can help to spot the red flags, Useche said.
“Before any money goes out, there will be isolation. If you’re talking to your mom every day and then it goes to none, that’s a huge flag,” Useche said.
As law enforcement cracks down on romance and other frauds, BBB says money mules have been prosecuted as well -- facing jail time and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines and restitution payments. However, in most cases, there is no desire to take criminal action against unwitting participants who had no financial gain and who stop transferring money for crooks as soon as they realize what's happening.
“The money mule phenomenon adds insult to injury for romance scam victims,” the BBB said in a statement. “After losing money and dignity to fraudsters they believed were loving romantic partners, these victims find themselves tangled in a web of even more serious crimes, possibly facing consequences themselves. Law enforcement and educators should work together to expose and stop these scams, to help unwitting fraud victims avoid being re-victimized.”
How romance scammers find their victims
A common place for romance scammers to find their victims is through dating websites and apps. It makes sense since people who use dating sites are actually there looking for a relationship.
BBB investigation into romance scams
The scammers use fake identities, like posing as a soldier in the U.S. Army, with pictures that aren't theirs, and life stories they never lived.
They quickly try to get them to move to a different form of communication, such as email or texting. This way, if the dating site identifies the scammer as being bogus and shuts them down, they are already in contact with their victims elsewhere. The scammers will often make fake Facebook pages for their aliases to help bolster their fake identity.
Under fake names and fake photos, scammers may spend months grooming their victims and building what the victim believes to be a loving relationship before asking for money to handle an emergency, business problem or plane ticket to finally meet.
If the victim sends money, the scammer will find ways to keep asking for more.
How to avoid falling victim
In addition to romance scams, fraudsters are also impersonating others, and even blackmailing their victims.
Useche said it's important to:
- Never send money to someone you have never met in person
- Recognize that online scammers are sophisticated and often use a script to gain trust
- Remember that scammers often claim they live in the U.S. but work overseas
- Know that scammers lie about why they need the money
“Families need to discuss this. If there is an elderly person in your family that could be vulnerable, maybe mom just lost a husband or grandma feels lonely, their temptation to connect with someone is high,” Useche said. “We are human.”
What to do if you're the victim of a romance scam
According to the new BBB report, cybersecurity experts have traced the bulk of online romance scams to Nigeria, though Nigerian nationals operating these frauds are based in several countries around the world, including the U.S.
The same groups involved in romance scams frequently operate other frauds on a worldwide scale. One expert reports that at any given time, there may be more than 25,000 scammers online with victims.
If you are a victim, report it to:
- Federal Trade Commission online or call 877-FTC-HELP
- Senate Aging Committee Fraud Hotline online or call 855-303-9470
Victims who have sent money through Western Union should also complain directly to them at 1-800-448-1492.
Victims who have sent money through MoneyGram should also notify the company directly at 1-800-926-9400.