TAMPA, Fla. - Some say love is blind, but for the tens of thousands that fall into romance scams each year, it’s love that blinds them into getting swindled out of some serious cash.
Last year alone, scammers made more than a billion dollars off unsuspecting victims, according to the FBI.
According to socialcatfish.com, romance scams typically start on online dating or social media apps and tend to follow a pattern. The scammer will usually come on strong with vows of love, and maybe even the promise of marriage early on. In exchanges, the scammer is charming and kind but plans to meet up in person always seem to fall through.
Eventually, the online wooer ends up in a sudden crisis that only cash can solve. The victim is all too often willing to do anything to help, including draining their bank account.
"I was in such a fog of emotional and financial abuse because it is an emotional and financial rape that happens to you and of course, you blame yourself for a lot of it," said scam victim Rebecca D’Antonio.
D’Antonio says her scammer did his homework, using things she’d revealed on her online dating profile to pinpoint her weaknesses.
"I thought I was being smart in the way I was filling it out because I had been through a couple of bad relationships and so I basically filled out my profile from the point of view of this is the package I come in, this is what I will put up within a relationship, this is what I won't put up within a relationship because I was trying to circumvent a lot of the drama that can happen. What I didn't realize was that I was giving scammers a road map around what would have been a lot of my red flags," said D’Antonio.
Her scammer claimed to be a single father living in Australia with a 5-year-old son. Once a relationship had been established, she says he used the "son" as a hook to manipulate her into giving him so much money she nearly ended up getting evicted.
"His story was that he was traveling abroad and the card that he was using for his expenses had stopped working," said D’Anonio. "I could not leave the child in a bad situation, so I had sent money to bring them home. I took out loans. I took money out of my 401k."
The new hit documentary "Tinder Swindler" has put a spotlight on romance scams, which don’t always take place strictly online.
The documentary tells the stories of three women who claim to be the victims of an international fraudster. The women say they met Shimon Hayut, aka Simon Leviev, on Tinder. After whirlwind romances that included fancy trips and gifts, he eventually convinced them to take out loans, give him access to their credit cards and send him hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash. Filmmakers claim he’s scammed people all over the world, primarily women, out of an estimated $10 million.
Hayut, who called himself the "Prince of Diamonds," allegedly claimed to be the son of a wealthy businessman. The women say he used doctored photos, fake websites and created an online persona depicting a millionaire lifestyle to convince them he was who he claimed to be.
He also threw around lots of cash. The women say they have flown around on private jets, were picked up in luxury cars, and treated to nights out in exclusive clubs and restaurants, not realizing until it was too late who had actually financed the charade.
Despite multiple arrests and jail time, filmmakers say Hayut is no longer behind bars and, up until last Friday when Tinder announced they’d banned him, was still active on dating apps.
There are ways to protect yourself against romance scams, even when dealing with experts. Experts provide the following advice:
- Search the person’s name and the contact information they give you. The lack of any online presence can be a tip-off for a fake name.
- Run a reverse image search on photos in their profile or pictures they send to you. The search can reveal if the person is using someone else’s photos or has multiple social media profiles under different names. Be aware many free search sites, like Google’s image search, often don’t include social media sites, like Facebook or Instagram, in their results. This can make it more difficult to identify more sophisticated scammers. Pay sites like SocialCatfish.com charge a small fee for a reverse image search they say uses "metadata and proprietary technology" to scan social media and networks across the web.
- Ask to video chat with the person you’ve met. If they act like they’ve never heard of Skype, Facebook video, or FaceTime or are for some reason never able to video chat, they’re probably catfishing.
- Never send money, credit card, or banking information to someone you’ve only communicated with online or over the phone.
- Be careful about what you post and make public online. Scammers often target widows, divorces and those who seemingly have had a tough time with love.
- Beware of requests for adult photos or financial information that could later be used to extort you.
Other red flags to look out for:
- Scammers commonly claim to live abroad or work in an industry that takes them overseas, conveniently making an in-person meeting difficult. The FBI says scammers often claim to have careers in the military, construction, or oil industry.
- Be wary of anyone who always seems to have an excuse for why they can’t meet up in person. If a few months have passed, and you still haven’t met in person, you have good reason to be suspicious.
- If you suspect you or a loved one may have fallen victim to a romance or online scammer report it to the FBI’s internet crimes complaint center, IC3. FBI officials advise stopping all contact immediately.
To file an IC3 complaint, click here.