By Al Perales, Iowa Attorney General’s Office Investigator
Loneliness and sadness were side effects of quarantining during the pandemic. For those who were single and living alone — especially older Iowans who were widowed — it was an even more isolating time. Heartless scammers targeted the isolated as prey.
According to Federal Trade Commission romance scams reached a record $304 million in losses in 2020, up about 50% from 2019.
Online dating and social media sites were the places for singles to connect during quarantine. Con artists used these sites as their hunting grounds, knowing they could tug at the heart strings of the lonely, create an online romantic relationship, gain their trust and eventually steal their money.
Randy Meiers, Clinton County Sheriff’s Office Seniors vs Crime officer, has been receiving three romance scam reports each month since the start of the pandemic. He says what’s worse is romance scammers are now turning their victims into unemployment check money launderers.
This is how they do it. The scammer steals an identity and illegally files an unemployment claim in the identity theft victim’s name. The scammer then reaches out to their romance scam victim to deposit the unemployment benefits in the romance scam victim’s account. Soon after, the scammer wants the money back, and asks their newly beloved victim to send them the money back through untraceable gift cards. Please remember – if you are ever asked to pay money through gift cards, it is a big red flag and is most likely a scam.
With more unemployment claims during the pandemic, this money-laundering twist on the romance scam has contributed to the 50% increase in romance scams year-over-year.
One of the worst online scams is the romance scam, because this romantic con artist breaks your heart, plus steals your money and personal information. This month I took a report from a northeast Iowa woman who lost $900,000 to a romance scam.
Romance scammers say they need the money for a variety of reasons, including to afford travel to come see their newly beloved, to help their business, to pay for a surgery or other terrible misfortune. Often, they say they are working out of the country as physician, oil rigger or military member.
As an investigator at the Iowa Attorney General’s Office, I want to ensure that you are not making these mistakes or being pressured into giving your money away to a scam. Remember that we are a phone call away, and we are here to help you investigate, if you come across a scam.
Here are some tips from the FTC and the Iowa Fraud Fighters team to avoid becoming a victim of a romance scam:
- Conduct an online search to cross-check the person’s name, photo, location, email address and any details to verify the person’s identity and legitimacy.
- Be suspicious if your new friend from the dating site professes love quickly.
- Don’t be persuaded to be lured off the dating site for communication.
- Slow down and talk to someone you trust. Romance scammers often try to isolate the victim from friends and family.
- If the romance started online, you have never met in person and they ask you for money, it is a scam.
- Never wire money or send cash, gift cards or reloaded cash cards, or bitcoin, to anyone you don’t know.
- If you have sent money or gift cards, report it to your financial institution, file a complaint with the FTC and call me at the Iowa Attorney General’s Office at 888-777-4590 or submit a complaint online.