It could be the cruelest form of online scams – the romantic kind.
People are preying off the vulnerability of people who feel lonely. Just in time for Valentine’s Day, the Better Business Bureau is warning that romance scams are on the rise.
"I mean, we are a lot more vulnerable and we're craving human connection. Especially people that don't have family living in their home with them,” said Amy Rasor, BBB Fort Worth regional director. “They're alone, that connectivity and making a connection with another person is very attractive right now. Unfortunately, there are people taking advantage of that."
One Texas woman is sharing her story of a recent close call with someone she thought loved her.
Get DFW local news, weather forecasts and entertainment stories to your inbox. Sign up for NBC DFW newsletters.
LOOKING FOR LOVE
Yvonne Costales, a 68-year old grandmother who lives in the Houston area, was in search of a connection.
“I haven't dated for a long time and I've been single for about 10 years, so I decided to go on Tinder,” she told NBC 5. “I just felt like maybe I could find someone, even if it's just a companion.”
Through the app, she met “Robert,” who claimed to be a 57-year old working in Dallas.
The latest news from around North Texas.
They talked through text messages and phone calls every day. He sent her flowers and pictures of himself.
“He was very handsome. His profile was really nice. He seemed athletic,” she recalled. "I fell in love with his pictures. I mean, he was a really nice-looking man, and then, combined with what he said and what he texted. He seemed like a real person. But like I said, there were red flags all along."
They shared life stories and quickly built an emotional relationship, with Robert confessing his love for her.
But “Robert” made up excuses for not being able to meet in person.
"I didn't think I would be taken in by something like this, but the way that they manage things is so slick,” she said. "I sort of was raised to give people the benefit of the doubt. So I went in this completely ignorant."
Other lies came to light, including the fact that he didn’t work in Dallas but instead worked in Turkey. Costales still isn’t sure exactly where he was located.
“He then said he was from Italy and he'd been here 34 years but I can barely understand him and it was not an Italian accent,” she said. “Then he said, let's travel together and he sent me a picture of a place in the Maldives where he wanted to go. I can't go to a place that I can’t afford like that he said ‘Well, you don't need to worry.’”
Then he started bringing up financial questions.
"He said ‘Oh, I need you to help me. Can you help me with my father's estate? I want to talk to my broker and he's going to arrange to send some money to you,’” Costales remembers. “And I thought, 'Well, that's so strange.' You know, I guess he was trying to make me think he was rich."
He even asked to send her money so they could buy a house together in another country, a move she was later told was a possible ploy to launder money.
"I kept second-guessing myself, which I shouldn't have done,” said Costales. “I also had a friend who kept saying, ‘Yvonne, you can't be in love with someone you've never met.’ And I know, I know that but this person seems different, you know?"
All of this took place in the course of four weeks.
The last time she spoke to him, he tried to get her Social Security number and other personal information. She quickly cut it off.
Despite everything, Costales said she was still heartbroken.
"It was very upsetting. I was really depressed about it and was mostly disappointed with myself because I wasted four weeks of my life on this cruel thing that they were doing. And I just felt really lucky that I didn't lose any money,” she said.
Costales used a service called Social Catfish to help her figure out who “Robert” really was. The website provides assistance and resources to people who are potential victims of online scams or “catfish,” a term used to describe a person who creates a fake online presence to mislead others.
"The pictures I found out later were stolen from a man who was a TV announcer in San Francisco,” said Costales.
She eventually filed a report with the FBI and stopped using dating websites. The experience even has her thinking about removing all social media.
But Costales said she hopes that sharing her story can prevent others from being a victim.
"Your grandmother could be sitting there on the computer right now being stalked by a criminal and she won't know it. She's too embarrassed. As I was going along, I knew something was wrong, but I didn't have enough information to figure out what was happening,” she said.
A RISE IN ROMANCE SCAMS
Online dating has only become more popular as we all spend more time at home and online during the pandemic.
According to a study published by Pew Research Center, online dating has seen a marked increase in recent years, with 30 percent of Americans using either a dating site or app in 2020.
But just like Costales’ experience, not everyone with an account is searching for love.
Some are searching for money.
According to the Federal Trade Commission, Texans lost a total of more than $313 million to online scams in 2020.
Across the country, that total was a record $4.2 billion, with $304 million of that lost in romance scams alone – up from $201 million in 2019. From 2016 to 2020, monetary losses to romance scams increased by a factor of four, and the number of reports nearly tripled.
"So when you think about how many people they're messaging, and so they're putting lines out in the water, to see who's going to buy who's going to respond to them, and so they could be having hundreds, if not more, chats with people to try and see who they can get on the line,” said Rasor. “They're making tons of money because they have all of these different relationships that they're in with so many different people.”
Most victims are over the age of 60, according to the State of Internet Scams 2021 report by Social Catfish, using data from the FBI, IC3 and FTC.
Facebook and Instagram are also among the most popular sites where people are getting romantically duped. Oftentimes, people will receive unsolicited direct messages to initiate a relationship from a random person they do not know.
The Better Business Bureau said the reports they're receiving from Texans are only getting worse, with some people losing thousands of dollars.
In October 2021, one Texas resident reported to BBB Scam Tracker that after two months of conversing with a romantic interest who claimed to live in Dubai and worked on an oil rig, he required financial assistance to support his teenage daughter.
The victim provided a total of $2,200 over a series of requests before becoming aware of the scam.
“[The scammer] said everything I yearned to hear,” the victim reported to the BBB. “Used terms such as ‘my queen’ and was interested in marriage.”
DON'T BECOME A VICTIM
Social Catfish, the FBI and the Better Business Bureau are offering advice for people this Valentine’s Day. Here’s a list of signs that you are being catfished:
Cannot Meet Because of COVID: The hallmark of a catfish scammer is to come up with excuses of why they cannot meet, such as pretending to be in the military overseas. The pandemic gives them a built-in excuse not to meet.
"They might be saying that their doctor doing work in another country. I mean, there is any number of excuses and reasons that they will give for not being able to have an in-person relationship,” said Rasor.
Will Not Video Chat: The oldest excuse in the book, they cannot video chat with you because their video camera is supposedly “broken,” or they do not have the best access to Wi-Fi. These are red flags.
Asks You for Money: Once they form an emotional connection with lonely victims, they ask for money. During COVID-19, scammers have begun saying they are sick and need help with treatment, or are low on food, water, and other supplies.
"They're trying to ramp up that relationship, and then they begin to come up with some kind of a crisis or reason that they need to borrow some money and that you're their loved one and you're their only resource and that they need your help,” said Rasor. “So that could be anything from ‘my child needs tuition money,' to ‘I've had an emergency in my home and need money for repairs’— any number of excuses. And it starts to add up very quickly.”
Poor Grammar: If the person claims to be American, but has terrible grammar, ask questions to find out more about where they actually live.
Confesses Love Quickly: If you are stuck in your house with limited contact with your loved ones, then someone else’s sweet words can win you over. Scammers no the sooner they win your trust the sooner they can drain your bank account. Beware of someone who is moving too fast.
If you think you may encounter someone trying to take advantage of you while dating online, the following are things you can do as recommended by the BBB:
Never wire money to online interests. No matter how much the person claims they need the money or what will happen if they do not have a certain amount of money, never transfer funds to online interests through a wire service, bank transfer or gift card. Scammers know that these payment methods are fast, anonymous and almost impossible to reverse.
Verify the authenticity of photos. A common tactic of scammers is to steal photos online of either people they are claiming to be or of locations where they claim to live. Use reverse image search to see if the photo is publicly available or of another person. Scammers are proficient in the use of editing software and may use a standard picture of a landmark with a picture of themselves edited in. Look for the hallmarks of edited photos, such as signs of warping, an interrupted background pattern or missing shadows.
Do research, ask questions. Spend the time researching the area they claim to live in for popular landmarks or attractions. Once you’ve compiled a list of places that they are likely to know about if they live in the area, ask pointed questions about them and their opinions. Ask about some of their favorite places to eat, socialize or visit in the area and verify those locations exist. Ask about their employment – if they work on an oil rig, ask what company owns the rig or what organization they are a doctor for. You can verify some of this information online, but these questions may also expose a scammer if they struggle to answer them easily.
For more information from the FTC about romance scams, click here.