Romance scams are on the rise. According to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre, romance scams accounted for the “the second highest amount of fraud-related dollar loss in 2021.” A similar finding was made by the US Federal Trade Commission.
If you are a litigator practicing in family or estate law you have likely encountered these types of situations. In this article we are going to look at key elements of a romance scam, some warning signs, and resources that can assist you in your investigation.
Warning Signs and Red Flags
There are some important things to keep in mind when dealing with a potential romance scam. First, the target may not even realize they are being targeted. It is not uncommon for concerns to be raised by those close to the victim, rather than the victim themselves. Family members may raise concerns about the change in the victim’s ability to manage their financial affairs. In some cases, family members may even have their own suspicions of a scam being involved.
When it comes to how the victim is selected, the fraudster may identify them through an online dating site or social media platform. They could be in the same geographical area as the victim, or in a totally different country. Whatever the situation, at some point the fraudster will present a pressing need for money. This could be a medical emergency, legal problem, or even an unforeseen travel expense the fraudster incurred while travelling to meet the victim. In this last scenario the fraudster doesn’t actually travel to see the target. Whatever the reason, the goal is to have the victim send money. The money might be sent to the fraudster or through an intermediary. At times, the victim themselves may be conned into being one of these intermediaries. In most cases, the amounts start off small, but quickly grow larger, which can create financial hardship for the victim.
Prior to engaging with a particular target, fraudsters typically conduct research on them. Simply put, they are looking for someone with money and someone who they see as vulnerable. For example, they may target an individual whose marital status indicates “widowed”. The fraudsters may even look into the deceased spouse in attempt to obtain information on the estate the victim might have inherited. The fraudster could also make use of online tools to research the person’s interests and hobbies. This can help them to pique a person’s interest, and in time, earn their trust.
The Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre has identified a number of red flags with respect to romance scams. These include:
- When someone you haven’t met in person professes their love to you.
- If the person wants to quickly move to a private or different mode of communication (Ex. email, text, WhatsApp, Google Hangouts, etc.)
- If they always have an excuse not to meet in person.
- If you receive poorly/oddly written messages, sometimes even addressing you by the wrong name.
- If the individual claims to live close to you, but is working overseas.
- If they act distressed or angry to guilt you into sending money.
- If the individual discourages you from discussing them or their situation with your friends and family (attempting to isolate, you from those who may be suspicious of the relationship).
So now that we have reviewed the basics, lets look at some type of inquiries you, as a litigator, can make if you suspect you are dealing with a romance scam, or any other online fraud scam.
We suggest the following:
1. Conduct a reverse image search on the profile picture associated to the alleged fraudster’s dating profile. If you find the image in stock image repositories, magazines, or other strange places, this may be a sign that you are dealing with a fraudster.
2. Conduct searches on the text in dating profiles or ads. If a fraudster is making use of multiple platforms and/or has multiple profiles, searching the text can be a good way to find them. It is common practice for fraudsters to recycle profiles because their main goal is efficiency, not creativity.
3. Conduct research into the alleged fraudster’s online presence. Typically, if the person is real, they will have other social media accounts, dating profiles, etc. If the information you are finding online is limited to the fraudster’s dating profile, this could indicate the person has been created for the sole purpose of targeting individuals in romance scams.
4. Conduct background inquiries on the alleged fraudster if you have reason to believe they are a real person. This can help you figure out if they have a history of engaging in fraud or other scams and dishonest acts.
5. Direct your client (the victim of the scam) to communicate with the fraudster through video chat. This can allow you to compare the physical description of the person in the video to the one provided in the profile pictures. It is relatively easy for fraudsters to convey a specific identity through static images, text, and phone conversations; it is much more difficult to do so through video. Notwithstanding, as one victim points out, through the use of artificial intelligence and video editing software, scammers are becoming more sophisticated when it comes to video calls. It can be helpful to encourage the would-be fraudster to move around in spontaneous ways on the video call.
6. If your client has already sent the alleged fraudster money, direct them to have the fraudster send them the receipts. Typically, the fraudster requests money for a specific expense they have incurred (ex. car repair, rent payment, etc.) Your client can ask to see the receipts related to these expenses. If receipts are provided, be sure to investigate to confirm their validity.
As one might expect, personal frauds are typically underreported. Often, this is due to the embarrassment and shame the victim experiences. Not only do they suffer a significant financial loss, but the emotional loss can be just as great. Being able to recognize romance scams, becoming familiar with the “red flags”, and making use of appropriate investigative tools and risk-mitigating tactics allows you to assist clients in an impactful way. Interested in learning more? Check out our services or get in touch with us directly.