Please Beware of the Romance Scam!

Recent events impacting both my clients and my family have prompted me to write this.

We have such wonderful technology that allows us to connect with one another in so many ways. However, this same technology has been weaponized by criminal networks whose goal is to exploit our most basic human need, the need for companionship.

If you have an elderly relative or friend that lives by themselves, please stay engaged with them and please check in with them regularly. They are the most common targets of a scam made increasingly prevalent by our self-isolation due to Covid.

If our loved ones use a computer or a portable device, they may access social networking and chat applications such as Facebook and WhatsApp or dating sites like Match and Our Time. These same sites are used by criminals posing as heroic American soldiers stationed in Afghanistan or charming entrepreneurs who have traveled the world.

Scammers initiate a relationship with their victim through text, e-mail and even phone conversation. They interact with our loved ones daily, often multiple times a day. Their writing style is romantic, and their conversation skills are sharp. The photos they send of themselves portray physically attractive people.

Of course, this is all an elaborate hoax.

The goal is to exploit the loneliness of our loved ones. The perpetrators are extremely patient. They realize it can often take months to build these relationships and they are willing to invest the time. The reason for this patience is the big payoff at the end. The endgame is to take your loved one’s money; all of it if they can.

Their entry point begins with small and seemingly harmless requests. It could be as simple as $10 on an I-tunes gift card. However, as their victims fall in love with them, or at least the image they are projecting, the victim will pay any dollar amount if they are convinced it will allow them to be together with their new-found love.

The perpetrators attempt to isolate the victim from their family and friends. If the relationship has progressed far enough, it is the perpetrator that the victim is more likely to trust than their loved ones.

I know this sounds outlandish. One would think our parents, grandparents and friends would be too intelligent to fall for something like this. However, our powerful drive to find companionship will often trump our rational tendencies.

Both the incidence of romance scams and the monies lost are increasing at a rapid rate. Unfortunately, law enforcement is not able to prevent rational adults from sending substantial amounts of money to complete strangers. When the money is gone, it cannot be recovered.

As a financial advisor, I have become accustomed to detecting many of the early signs. However, as friends and family members, you are the victim’s strongest line of defense. Please look out for some of the signs:

1. Increasingly withdrawn behavior. They always seem to be pre-occupied.

2. Spending an irregularly large amount of time on their portable phone or tablet.

3. Showing an unusual interest in technology and chat applications.

4. Decreasing frequency of communication with family and friends.

5. Becoming guarded and defensive when questioned about their behavior.

6. Making regular cash withdrawals from their bank accounts.

Our friends and loved ones need our support. The best way to protect them is to identify any potential problems early on and to provide positive and persistent engagement.