Be careful who you connect with this Valentine's Day. That beautiful blond woman or superhot guy messaging you may be after more than just your love and affection.
Experts warn that this is peak season for online romance scams, which accounted for a staggering $1.3 billion in losses last year, according to the Federal Trade Commission. The pandemic and our increasingly digital lives mean anyone feeling particularly lonely this season could make for a potential target.
It often starts with what looks like an innocent message through social media. They'll 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.
"There's always an excuse why they can't meet in person," said Emma Fletcher, a senior data researcher for the FTC, who worked on the commission's 2022 numbers. "It's baked into the identity they've taken on."
Eventually, the scammer will ask for money, often playing with their mark's heart to get them to send the cash. They might say they need it to escape a dangerous situation, or just to buy a plane ticket to visit, said Zulfikar Ramzan, chief scientist at Aura, a consumer-focused cybersecurity company.
Once they've got the money, the scammer and the victim's dollars will just disappear.
It's a legitimate threat, given that online dating and connecting through apps is more the norm than the exception.
On top of that, Ramzan said the pandemic further pushed daily life online by keeping many people at home and out of bars and restaurants where they might've previously met for a first date. It's a lot more plausible now for remote romances to blossom.
Aura, Ramzan's company, in January surveyed 1,000 Americans about their dating app experiences. Of those people, 30 percent reported spotting suspected fraudulent behavior, while 17 percent admitted that they themselves experienced fraud.
Of the group that were swindled, 13 percent said they lost money, with their losses averaging more than $2,000.
"Either people haven't learned, or the scammers are just getting better," Ramzan said.
Indeed, they've gotten more aggressive and sophisticated.
Both Ramzan and Fletcher pointed to a big increase in scams involving cryptocurrency, which accounted for 34 percent of the losses reported to the FTC last year. 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.
Though 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, Fletcher said.
The scammers portray themselves as sophisticated investors that 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, she said.
Meanwhile, whether it's for love or money, it's human nature for people to see what they want to see.
"People just think that it isn't going to happen to them," Fletcher said. "But it's important to remember that the people it did happen to thought that, too."
Tips for avoiding Valentine's Day scams
Be skeptical of anyone who reaches out through an unsolicited email, text or social media message. There's no way to know who they actually are. If someone claims to be overseas, or otherwise says they can't meet in person, consider it a big red flag.
Stick to your dating app. Dating apps don't like scammers. It's bad for their reputations, Ramzan said. Be wary if someone wants to move your communications to an outside messaging app like WhatsApp or Signal.
Never give money to people you've met only online. If someone you've never met in person asks for money to travel to the US and see you, to pay for medical care, or to help deal with a sudden tragedy, you should regard 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, Ramzan said. Check it out. Fletcher also recommends doing a reverse image search of your potential date's photo. If it pops up in other places under a different name, steer clear.
Investment deals that seem too good to be true probably are. Don't send your money or crypto to someone you've met only online, even if they promise big returns.
Good cybersecurity will 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.