Romance scams and credit cards: How to avoid falling victim

John Egan
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John Egan
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Romance scams and credit cards: How to avoid falling victim

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Love can easily turn to hate when an online romance transforms into an online romance scam. Unfortunately, these scams are on the rise.

From 2020 to 2021, the number of romance scams reported to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) jumped from 33,000 to 56,000. And losses attributed to these scams, including those connected to credit cards, hit a record-high $547 million in 2021. These figures don’t fully reflect the enormity of romance scams, though, as many of them go unreported.

What role do credit cards play in romance scams?

While the majority of romance scammers steal money through gift cards, prepaid cards, cryptocurrency, payment services, bank transfers or wire transfers, some of these crooks rely on credit cards to squeeze their victims.

Eva Velasquez, president and CEO of the Identity Theft Resource Center, explains that a romance scammer might ask a victim to obtain a cash advance on a credit card and then send the cash in another form, such as a wire transfer or payment service.

“They may even talk the victim into sharing their credit card details so they can make purchases themselves,” Velasquez says.

The ways that romance scammers defraud their victims are “limited only to their imagination,” she says.

What help is available from a credit card company if you’ve been victimized by a romance scammer?

The news about recovering money lost in a credit card-related romance scam is even sadder than a breakup on Valentine’s Day.

Velasquez says it’s “very challenging” for a victim to recoup money lost in a credit card-related romance scam because, unlike identity fraud or traditional credit card fraud, these transactions are typically authorized by the legitimate cardholder.

“In cases of identity fraud or traditional credit card fraud, the legitimate cardholder was not involved in the transaction at all,” she says.

In a typical situation, a victim discovers that someone else has used their card or account without permission, and the transactions are reimbursed to the cardholder as required by federal law, according to Velasquez. But the law normally doesn’t cover credit card-related losses in a romance scam because the legitimate cardholder usually authorized the transactions.

Velasquez encourages a victim in this scenario to immediately report a suspected scam to the credit card issuer. However, she adds, the victim shouldn’t expect to see any of the lost money.

“Ultimately, it’s up to the card issuer to decide whether or not it’s going to hold you liable for purchases or cash advances,” credit expert John Ulzheimer notes.

How can you avoid being the victim of a romance scam?

Velasquez recommends always being vigilant about protecting your assets to reduce the chances of being trapped in a romance scam.

“Romance scammers build relationships quickly and make false promises,” she says.

Look for these red flags when you’re being romanced by someone online:

  • Your sweetheart proclaims their love too quickly. Take things slowly if your love interest is trying to speed up the relationship. Be suspicious if things appear to be getting serious, especially if you haven’t seen each other in person.
  • Your sweetheart asks for financial help. Experts suggest rejecting any monetary requests, no matter how sincere or desperate the person sounds, unless you’ve met your love interest in person. “The bottom line is that love does not equal money,” says Velasquez.
  • Your sweetheart makes excuses for being unable to meet in person. The scammer might claim they’re living or traveling outside the country, working on an oil rig, stationed at a faraway military installation or working with an international organization, the FTC says.
  • Your sweetheart’s online presence is sketchy. Ulzheimer recommends digging into your love interest’s background on the web and on social media to avoid being sucked into a romance scam. The FTC suggests being on the lookout for phony online profiles, particularly on Facebook or Instagram. For instance, you should do a reverse image search if you suspect the person’s profile photo is fake.
  • You sweetheart wants to take things offline. Experts suggest sticking to the dating app or website where you met your love interest. Don’t give out your email address or phone number.
  • You’re gullible. Romance scammers typically prey on people who are “way too trusting,” Ulzheimer says. Always keep your guard up when dealing with an online love interest, and stop chatting with them if you believe they may be a scammer.

How much money is lost in romance scams?

The FTC reported that Americans lost $1.3 billion to romance scams from 2017 through 2021. “Because the vast majority of frauds are not reported to the government, this figure reflects just a small fraction of the public harm caused by romance scams,” says the FTC.

The median individual loss in 2021 was $2,400.

Over the years, total losses in romance scams have skyrocketed. The following chart shows the escalation of the monetary damage.

Victims of romance scams often send money repeatedly, thinking they’re doing good by helping someone they care about, according to the FTC.

“Romance scammers weave all sorts of believable stories to con people, but their old standby involves pleas for help while claiming one financial or health crisis after another,” says the FTC. “The scammers’ stories might involve a sick child or a temporary inability to get to their money for a whole range of reasons.”

2017

2018

2019

2020

2021

Total losses

$87 million

$145 million

$202 million

$307 million

$547 million

Source: Federal Trade Commission’s Consumer Sentinel Network

The following chart shows a breakdown of the median individual loss by age group for romance scams reported in 2021.

18-29

30-39

40-49

50-59

60-69

70 and over

Median individual loss in 2021 per age group

$750

$2,000

$3,000

$4,000

$6,000

$9,000

Source: Federal Trade Commission’s Consumer Sentinel Network

In some cases, the individual losses can be enormous.

In January 2023, a Florida woman named Peaches Stergo was accused of stealing the life savings — more than $2.8 million — of an 87-year-old Holocaust survivor in a romance scam. The scam lasted about four years, and the victim eventually had to give up his apartment.

In a news release, U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said Stergo allegedly deceived the victim with the intent of “maliciously draining his life savings so she could become a millionaire through fraud. Stergo forged documents and impersonated a bank employee in exchange for a life of fancy trips, Rolex watches and luxury purchases.”

February is a particularly vulnerable time for romance scams, but the risk remains yearlong. Just as you would practice caution with your finances in any other aspect of your life, it’s especially important to be mindful when it comes to romance, too.

author
John Egan
Cardratings Contributor

John Egan is a content creator and content marketing strategist in Austin, Texas. His specialties include personal finance, real estate, and health and wellness. John’s work has been published by outlets such as CreditCards.com, Bankrate, Forbes Advisor, Experian, Capital One, The Balance and U.S. News...Read more

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