Romance Scammers Are After More Than Hearts This Valentine's Day

That's not love -- it's a cybercriminal looking to steal your money and personal information.

Bree Fowler Senior Writer
Bree Fowler writes about cybersecurity and digital privacy. Before joining CNET she reported for The Associated Press and Consumer Reports. A Michigan native, she's a long-suffering Detroit sports fan, world traveler, two star marathoner and champion baker of over-the-top birthday cakes and all-things sourdough.
Expertise Cybersecurity, Digital Privacy, IoT, Consumer Tech, Running and Fitness Tech, Smartphones, Wearables
Bree Fowler
4 min read
Cartoonish illustration of a rosy-cheeked woman in a polka-dot dress, holding a laptop. Her mouth is open in alarm as a grinning and masked hacker in a striped shirt pops out of the screen and confronts her. A couple of Valentine's hearts drift between them.

Think you wouldn't fall for an online romance scam? Think again.

Getty Images

You may be in the mood for love this Valentine's Day, but the person behind that romantic message you just received may be looking for more than just your affection.

Experts warn that this is the peak season for online romance scams, which accounted for a staggering $1.14 billion in reported losses in 2023, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Anyone could be a target.

Those numbers don't take into account the untold numbers of victims that are too ashamed to admit that they fell for such a scheme, says Lisa Plaggemier, executive director of the National Cyber Security Alliance.

Others are so convinced that their relationships are real that they won't believe they're scams, even if they're contacted by investigators from the FBI or Secret Service, sometimes even tipping off the scammers about the investigations or refusing to testify against them in court.

"The issue with romance scams is that we're all emotional beings," Plaggemier said in an interview. "We love to think we're like Mr. Spock, but we're not. We're not all that rational."

The scams often start with what looks like an innocent message through social media or an unsolicited email or text. The scammer will introduce themselves as a woman in a war-torn country or a man working on an oil rig in the middle of the ocean. It's never anyone accessible.

And many scammers aren't afraid to play the long game, Plaggemier says. They'll string along a victim for several months, making sure they're completely emotionally invested, before asking for money.

When they do, they might say they need it to escape a dangerous situation or just to buy a plane ticket to visit. Once they've got the money, the scammer and the victim's dollars will just disappear.

While these kinds of scams have been around for years, experts say they're more of a threat than ever. Online dating and connecting through apps is more the norm than the exception. Meanwhile, advancements in technology, including the rollout of artificial intelligence tools, have helped scammers become more aggressive and sophisticated.

Sixty-six percent of those polled in a January survey done by the cybersecurity company McAfee reported that they, or someone they know, had been contacted by a stranger through social media or text message who then started to "chat" with them regularly and get to know them. 

Of those people, 57% said that the person in question eventually asked for money to fund things like investment opportunities, help with airfare to come visit, or to help themselves or an ill family member.

The rise of cryptocurrency also hasn't helped. By design, crypto can be largely anonymous and extremely hard to trace, which generally means that if it's stolen, it's gone for good

While some scammers do ask their victims to send them crypto for the same fake reasons as they do cash, an increasing number of cybercriminals are pushing fake crypto investment schemes.

The scammers portray themselves as sophisticated investors who want to help out the person they're targeting, promising them big returns if they invest their crypto with them. People will let their guard down because they think they're going to be the one to get something out of it.

That all may seem discouraging, but as with most kinds of online scams, you can usually avoid falling victim if you just take a minute to think before responding to a potential scammer.

As the cliche goes, if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Tips for avoiding romance scams

Be skeptical of unsolicited email, text or social media messages. There's no way to know who the people behind them actually are. If someone claims to be overseas or otherwise says they can't meet in person, consider that a big red flag. 

Stick to your dating app. Dating apps don't like scammers because they're bad for their reputations. So they have algorithms and other safeguards in place that are designed to spot scammy behavior.  Be wary if someone wants to move your communications to an outside messaging app like WhatsApp or Signal.

Never give money to people you don't know in real life. If someone you've never met in person asks for money to travel to the US to see you, to pay for medical care or to help deal with a sudden tragedy, you should view it as a scam. The same goes for the keys to your cryptocurrency wallets.

Protect your private data. Never send personal information like your Social Security number. If someone asks for naked or otherwise explicit photos, say no. The FTC says cases of "sextortion," where cybercriminals threaten to send such photos to people's contacts if they don't pay, are on the rise.

Do your homework. People who use dating apps and sites are probably tech savvy enough to have a social media presence. Check it out. While you're at it, do a reverse image search of your potential date's photo. If it pops up in other places under a different name, steer clear.

Be wary of big returns. Don't send your money or crypto to online friends who say they have a great investment opportunity for you, even if they promise epic payouts.

Good cybersecurity will help keep you safe. As always, set good passwords, use two-factor authentication and make sure your antivirus software, operating systems and apps are all up to date. These basic practices will go a long way toward protecting you if you click on or download something you shouldn't.

Report crimes that do happen. If you do fall victim to a scam, report it to the FTC and the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center, or IC3.