A sweetheart scam is when a person uses a fake online profile to engage victims, stir up romantic feelings, and ask for money.
Losses related to sweetheart scams reached $304 million in 2020—a 50% increase from 2019. Adults age 70+ lost an average of $9,475.80.
The first step in protecting yourself against a dating app scam is knowing the warning signs to look out for.
If you’re an older adult who’s just ventured into online dating, the prospect of romantic companionship can be exciting. But when it comes to using dating apps and sites, it’s important to act with caution. Otherwise, you just might get tangled up with the wrong person and find yourself the victim of a sweetheart scam.
What are sweetheart (or romance) scams?
A sweetheart scam is when a person uses fake profiles on dating sites to engage victims, stir up romantic feelings, and ask for money. Sweetheart scams may also be referred to as online dating scams, confidence scams, romance scams, or catfishing. Seniors are a common target for sweetheart scammers since they have more cash savings and a tendency to be trusting. Adults 60 and older also tend to be less informed about online scams in general.
Since sweetheart scams rely heavily on smoke and mirrors, the internet is ripe for these kinds of crimes. While many take place via dating websites and apps (e.g., Tinder), these scams can also originate on messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Google Hangouts or social media platforms like Facebook.
How common are sweetheart scams?
They’re all too common, unfortunately. According to new data from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), reported losses related to sweetheart scams reached a record $304 million in 2020—a 50% increase from 2019.
People ages 40 to 69 were the most likely to report getting swindled by sweetheart scams. Those age 70 and older reported the highest median losses at $9,475.80.
Why are online dating scams gaining steam? In general, the number of online dating site and app users has been rising. And the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has given scammers a convenient excuse to avoid meeting their victims in person, allowing them to perpetuate their deception. Lastly, pandemic restrictions have made people lonelier and more vulnerable, particularly older adults who are more likely to isolate at home.
How do sweetheart scams work?
Online dating scams may start out innocuously, with a random match on a dating app or an unexpected friend request on Facebook. The man or woman reaching out may seem kind, attentive, and genuinely interested in you. Their profile may be plastered with images of an attractive, well-dressed person.
“Scammers target older adults to take advantage of their polite and trusting nature, as well as their typically stable financial situation. The best defense against these attacks is the ability to recognize them and end contact with the scammer,” said Emma McGowan, a privacy and security expert at Avast.
With sweetheart scammers, things tend to escalate fast. Casual conversation turns personal very quickly, and soon you’re chatting multiple times a day. The person showers you with compliments and in no time, they’re saying they love you.
The intensity of this relationship may make you feel confused, excited, and euphoric all at once. Eventually, you may think you’re in love with this person. Once they sense you’ve fallen for them, they start to ask you for money for various reasons. You’ve already started to care for this individual; maybe you already consider them your romantic partner. You begin to send them cash and gift cards, completely unaware that this person you trust is not who they say they are.
Signs of a sweetheart scammer
Avoiding online dating scams starts with knowing what to look out for in your dating interactions. What are some signs the person you’re talking to is actually a con artist? Be on alert if they:
- “Love bomb” you: Love bombing is standard among sweetheart scammer tactics. It’s when a person lavishes you with excessive flattery, affection, and praise early in the relationship in an effort to manipulate your emotions.
- Ask you to move to another app or website to speak privately.
- Claim to be a native English speaker, but their spelling, grammar, or accent tell you otherwise.
- Say they live in your home country but they’re traveling for work. They may claim to be, for example, a military servicemember, a traveling physician, or an oil rig worker.
- Have an online profile that doesn’t match up with what they’ve told you, in terms of either photos or biographical details.
- Refuse to chat on video, claiming their phone’s camera doesn’t work or they don’t have a cell phone at all.
- Give dubious excuses for not being able to meet up in person, such as being in a car accident or a loved one dying.
- Ask you to send them money for a family medical emergency—or store gift cards because they’ve lost their job. They might say they’re going to buy airline tickets to come visit you. Basically, dating scammers will use any “hardship” story that’s already worked in getting people to part with their cash.
- Ask to send you money in order to get their hands on your personal banking information.
How to outsmart a sweetheart scammer
How can you protect yourself from sweetheart scams? You’ve already taken a huge first step simply by educating yourself. Here are more rules to live by when you’re dating after 50:
- If a situation feels fishy, run it by someone you trust to get their honest opinion.
- Be wary of strangers reaching out on social media. Do you have mutual connections? Is their profile full of photos and information, or is it bare?
- Google potential dating partners. It’s not being paranoid—it’s being smart. You can do this in multiple ways:
- Type their full name into the Google search box plus the word “scam,” plus their stated job, plus their stated location.
- Type in the word “scam” followed by something they’ve told you about themselves (e.g., “military”) and find articles about common scams. See if they’re following those same steps.
- Perform a reverse image search. This can help you confirm whether the person is who they say they are using photos from their online profile.
- Never give out your personal information, such as contact details, until you’ve met a person face to face and feel at ease with them. Scammers rely on getting access to their victims in different ways.
- Do not send intimate photos—especially with your face showing. sweetheart scammers could use these later to blackmail you.
- If you like someone, ask for a quick phone or video chat. If they refuse or make up outlandish excuses, that’s a red flag.
- If you’re interested in someone on a dating app, ask to meet up with that person. Always meet in a public place until you’re feeling comfortable. And like with video chat, refusal to meet up (especially multiple refusals) is a warning sign you shouldn’t ignore.
Join our partners at Avast to learn how to navigate dating apps and websites safely, and how to identify fake profiles that may be scammers.
What to do if you think you’re the victim of a sweetheart scam
First, there’s no reason to feel ashamed or embarrassed. These criminals are clever, and any of us could fall prey to their trickery. Here’s what to do if you believe you’ve been conned:
- File a report with the online dating app or social media website where the scammer first contacted you.
- File a report with the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3).
- Report the fraud to the FTC.
- Notify your financial institutions that you may have been scammed.
- Change all your passwords immediately. See our guide on how to create strong, crime-resistant passwords.
- Block the scammer immediately on all forms of communication: messaging apps, phone, text, and social media.
While reporting the scam can feel scary, sharing what happened to you can prevent it from happening to someone else.