~Kathryn Harnish, Advocate, EAIME
A Facebook friend request pops up from Jamie Brannigan, a kindly-looking older gentleman serving as a consulting physician for the United Nations in Zambia. Pictures of the widower and vignettes of his life populate Brannigan’s profile: the doctor zooming along the Zambezi River, off to vaccinate residents of remote villages against COVID; his smiling granddaughter; and the beach in his hometown of Durban, South Africa. Dr. Brannigan sounds like a fascinating person, someone whom it might be fun to get to know. What could it hurt to accept this request from such an accomplished individual, one who dedicates his time to helping to improve the health of people in distant parts of the world?
Given that Jamie Brannigan is an invented character whose profile has been created with stock photos and imagery stolen from other online users, it could hurt. A lot. Profiles like the fictitious Dr. Brannigan’s are cropping up with increasing frequency on social media and Internet dating sites, with the singular purpose of stealing hearts...and, subsequently, people’s savings. These ploys are called romance scams, and they are amazingly effective, with reported losses for older adults totaling more than $139 million in 2020, a 40% increase in just one year. Soberingly, people over the age of 70 also have the highest individual median losses at $9,475. Closer to home in Maine, 57 individuals reported romance scams with a total loss of $1.5 million in 2020 – that's an average of more than $25,000 each! And while women are targeted more frequently than men, anyone could end up involved in a romance scam.
So, how do these scams work, and what can you do to avoid getting involved with someone who professes their love while emptying your bank account?
While many romance scams start on dating apps, even more begin on social media – targeting people who aren’t even looking for love with an unexpected friend request or message. The scammer uses a fake profile to connect with the target, building trust and, eventually, the illusion of a deep relationship. Very often, the perpetrator wants to move things offline and suggests engaging by telephone, thereby avoiding some of the built-in protections that exist on social networking platforms. Declarations of undying love and marriage proposals typically ensue.
Ultimately, the scammer makes a request for money. Perhaps they ask for a phone card to keep making calls. Or claim that they’ve experienced a medical emergency that requires immediate payment. Some even go so far as to plan a visit with their target only to have travel disrupted, leaving them in need of money to purchase a new plane ticket. The stories that accompany these requests are endless, fueling a sense of urgency that leads people to send money not just once, but often repeatedly.
What might tip you off to this kind of ploy? Scammers create fake profiles that often indicate they’re living or traveling outside of the U.S.; it’s common for the perpetrator to say that they work on an oil rig, in the military, or – as in the case of our Dr. Brannigan – as a doctor with an international organization. Distance gives the scammer an excellent excuse not to meet in person. Sometimes, you’ll notice poor spelling or grammar – or even responses that seem “cut-and-pasted". The profiles typically present a character that’s almost “too good to be true”, often with some of the same interests noted on your own profile. You’re a dog lover who enjoys watching old movies? So is Dr. Brannigan! These cyber sweethearts move quickly, before their ill intentions can be discovered, and ask for money via specific forms of payment (usually a preloaded card or a wire transfer) which are anonymous, quickly convertible to cash, and very difficult to reverse.
The best advice to avoid losing your heart – and your money – in this type of fraudulent activity is to decline or ignore friend requests and messages from people you don’t know in “real life”, no matter how charming the individual may be. But if you do begin a new friendship, here are a few additional tips to prevent a scammer from taking advantage of you:
Never send money to someone you’ve only communicated with online or by phone.
Snoop a bit! Research the person’s photo with a reverse-image look-up, and Google your new friend’s name and other details.
Use your “Spidey-sense” – if something doesn’t seem quite right, it’s probably not. Repeatedly broken promises, attempts to isolate you from friends and family, and requests for inappropriate information or photos that could be used to harm you later are all red flags.
Talk to someone you trust about your new friendship...and listen to their concerns. It’s easy to get emotionally involved and miss key warning signs for fraud.
Another word of caution: scammers may create a reason to send money to their targets, then invent a story about why those funds need to be sent back to them or on to another party. People comply, thinking that they’re helping someone about whom they care, but end up committing online bank fraud by helping to launder money – often stolen unemployment benefits. If someone you meet online asks you to set up a new bank account, protect yourself from any criminal involvement by just saying “no”.
The Federal Trade Commission and Federal Bureau of Investigation sites both offer extensive information about romance scams, as well as information about how to report this kind of fraudulent activity.
Online platforms provide an easy way to connect with friends and family and to minimize the impact of social isolation that has affected so many of us during the COVID-19 pandemic...so don’t be discouraged from using these tools to engage with people you know. But when a dog-loving doctor living in Switzerland reaches out to you from their humanitarian mission in Zambia, a hefty dose of skepticism and a lot of extra caution is warranted!