Our minds naturally turn to thoughts of romance and love as Valentine’s Day approaches, but “love” can be a dirty word to the 25,000 Americans—many of them seniors—who reported romance scams in 2019, a number that will undoubtedly continue to climb in the future.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reports seniors were bilked out of $83.7 million that year by fraudulent romantic suitors, making it by far the costliest scam to impact those over the age of 60. Many of your elderly clients, patients, or customers may unknowingly be setting themselves up for a sweetheart scam.
Why are Seniors Targeted?
Often, the targets of romance scams are those looking for love, and many seniors fit the bill. Widows and widowers can be isolated and lonely, and likely have a consistent income stream, a retirement account and property. And dating sites are becoming more common among seniors. A 2019 Pew Research Center study revealed that 13% of Americans age 65 and over have used dating sites or apps, making lonely seniors easy to find.
While many romance scammers find their victims on dating sites, an increasing number are turning to much less obvious sources.
67-year-old Ellen met her scammer through the NextDoor neighborhood app, which connects people who live in the same community. A widower who claimed to live just a few streets over but was working at an out-of-town assignment befriended her. Soon they were planning to meet when he returned to town. She didn’t think much of it when he called from an airport, asking if she could help buy him a gift card to pay for a few movies to watch on a flight. But when he called again just a few days later asking for thousands of dollars to replace some items that had been stolen on his overseas business trip, she realized she was being duped.
The High Cost of Romance Scams
Ellen was fortunate—her fake suitor had only cost her $100. But many seniors don’t realize they’re being scammed until they’ve lost thousands of dollars. Younger romance fraud victims in their 20s report losing an average of $770 per incident, but as the age of the victim increases, so does the amount of the loss. Sweetheart scam targets in their 70s lose an average of $6,450.
The cost is often much higher. The United States Department of Justice recently prosecuted a sweetheart scam crime ring that bilked more than two dozen people out of $2 million. One of the victims was a 76-year-old widow in Rhode Island who refinanced her home, sold property and even cleaned out her bank accounts to send $660,000 to a supposed romantic suitor who posed as an Army General stationed in Afghanistan.
Unfortunately, prosecution of these scams is the exception, not the rule. Very few sweetheart swindlers are ever caught because they possess adept internet skills and take advantage of difficult-to-navigate international laws.
Sweetheart Scam Red Flags
It’s important for all of us to be aware of the sweetheart fraud red flags, so we can alert our elderly customers, clients, patients, and even our senior loved ones when something seems off.
- Online relationships that move very quickly
- Pictures that look like models or photo shoots rather than snapshots or selfies
- Suitors that can’t—or won’t—meet their romantic partner in person
- Romantic partners that won’t communicate over video chat (like FaceTime)
- Suitors that ask for money—especially via wire transfer or gift cards
- Sweethearts who claim to live or work overseas
If something seems suspicious, ask questions and don’t be afraid to help identify inconsistencies.
How to Report Romance Scams
If someone you know has fallen victim to a romance scam, urge them to file a complaint with the FTC by calling 877-FTC-HELP (877-382-4357). You can also encourage them to contact the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center by visiting www.IC3.gov. If they’ve sent money to a scammer or provided any banking information, they should also contact their bank immediately.
Oasis Senior Advisors provides this information to help you better serve the seniors in your community. If you know of an older adult in need of a housing transition, companion care, or even an elder law attorney, contact your local Oasis advisor at (PHONE). One call can offer many solutions for a senior in need.