Netflix’s ‘Tinder Swindler’ has shone a light on the shady and heartbreaking world of online romance scams. The criminal exploits of Israeli-born Simon Leviev are shocking, but similar schemes are so pervasive that it cost Americans about $1 billion last year, according to the FBI.
In a message shared by FBI field offices last week ahead of Valentine’s Day, the bureau warned citizens to be careful about who they are speaking to romantically over the internet, especially if they want to protect their wallets and hearts from breaking.
“Most often these romance scammers leave victims financially and emotionally devastated. Many victims may not have the ability to recover from the financial loss,” said Luis M. Quesada, special agent in charge of the FBI El Paso Division in a press release on Feb. 10.
Approximately 24,000 Americans fell victim to online romance scams, costing about $1 billion in 2021, according to the FBI. An astounding figure to be sure, but the bureau acknowledges that the number of victims and losses could be even higher because of the number of cases that likely go unreported.
The FBI says that the majority of the victims who were cheated out of their money were women older than 40, and women who are widowed, divorced, elderly or disabled. In a separate report by the Better Business Bureau from 2020, romance scams had a 45% susceptibility rate and found that women were 48% more likely to lose money in them than men were.
In an online romance scam, a victim is usually enticed by criminals who use anything from flowers to poetry to reel their victims in.
Like Leviev, who claimed to be everything from the son of a diamond billionaire to an agent of Israel’s Mossad, con-artists separate victims from their financial information by using stories of severe life circumstances or tragedies. Other times, they use these scams to turn a victim into an unwitting money mule to move funds from other crimes they are committing.
The trauma of the whole experience often leaves victims too embarrassed to report their cases to law enforcement. But Quesada, the FBI agent from El Paso, encourages victims to report if they suspect they are the victim of a romance scam to the bureau.
“While we recognize that it may be embarrassing for victims to report this type of fraud, it’s important to do so, so that the FBI and our law enforcement partners can do everything in our power to ensure these online imposters are held accountable,” said Quesada.
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