I’m so pleased we met. I love you. I can’t wait to see you. I’ve scheduled a flight for next month.
Finally, you’ve found your dream match. But then…
I’ve had an accident. Can you help me with my medical bills?
My luggage is stuck in customs. Can you submit some paperwork and payments for me?
Unfortunately, our estimates suggest that for nearly 73,000 Americans in 2022, the saying “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is” has likely become a haunting, real-life nightmare. Scammed for over $1 billion by fraudsters, not only have these victims been left out of pocket, but they’ve also been left humiliated, frightened, and heartbroken.
According to our estimates, 2022 may see a 10 percent year-on-year drop in the number of romance scams (from just over 81,000 in 2021 to 73,000 in 2022) but losses may exceed $1 billion for the first time. This suggests that scammers are perhaps using a much more targeted approach, stealing more money through a smaller number of scams.
Nevertheless, romance scams have risen exponentially in recent years (rising by over 30 percent from 2020 to 2021). Studies indicate that dating sites are at their busiest from the end of December to the middle of February, which could mean that dating scams are set to be even more frequent over the coming months.
To get an idea of the extent of romance scams on a state-by-state basis, Comparitech analyzed data from the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Better Business Bureau (BBB), and American Association of Retired Persons (AARP). Using 2021 data and all of the available data for 2022 so far, we’ve been able to create estimates for the entire year to try and understand the true picture of romance scams in 2022.
- An estimated 72,806 people fell victim to romance scams in 2022–a 10 percent decrease from 2021 (81,230)
- Losses from these scams exceeded $1 billion for the first time–a 1.3 percent increase from 2021 ($995 million)
- The FTC saw a 19 percent decrease in the number of romance scams reported in the first three quarters of 2022 (compared to the same period in 2021), declining from 48,669 to 39,438
- The BBB saw a 7 percent increase in romance scam reports (from 235 to 251)
- The AARP saw a 12 percent decrease in the number of cases it saw in 2021 (from 307 to 269)
States with the highest rates of romance scams per 100,000 people
The states with the highest number of romance scams are also the most populous of the United States, so there isn’t much surprise with the figures. However, if we take a look at the rate of romance scams per 100,000 people, we can see that the top states aren’t the highly-populated ones. Rather, the states with the highest rates of romance scams are:
- District of Columbia – 37.36 romance scams per 100,000 people
- Oregon – 31.55 romance scams per 100,000 people
- Maryland – 31.20 romance scams per 100,000 people
- Alaska – 30.98 romance scams per 100,000 people
- Washington – 30.21 romance scams per 100,000 people
As the below map also shows, the highest rates of romance scams per 100,000 tend to be in western or northeastern states.
States with the highest number of romance scams and losses
The top four states with the highest number of romance scams and losses are:
- California – 9,133 romance scams with a total loss of $193.7 million
- Texas – 5,642 romance scams with a total loss of $80.6 million
- Florida – 5,472 romance scams with a total loss of $85 million
- New York – 4,152 romance scams with a total loss of $68.2 million
States with the highest and lowest average loss per romance scam
Despite having high figures, only one of the above states made it into the top three highest average losses per scam (according to IC3 2021 data). The states with the highest average loss per romance scam were:
- North Dakota – $209,289
- Rhode Island – $62,773
- California – $60,843
In contrast, the states with the lowest averages per romance scam were:
- Maine – $5,775
- Arkansas – $7,977
- New Mexico – $11,571
Did romance scams decline in 2022?
In 2020, the FTC alone received 41,463 reports of romance scams. This increased by around 44 percent in 2021 with 59,690 reports in total.
So far, the FTC has only released Q1, Q2, and Q3 figures for 2022, which amount to 39,438 cases. As noted previously, this is a 19 percent decrease on the same period last year (48,669). If Q4 follows a similar trend to 2021 (an average decrease of around 18 percent on Q3’s figures), we estimate that the FTC will receive 50,326 reports in total for 2022. While this figure would mean a 16 percent year-on-year decrease in overall case figures, the same cannot be said for the monetary values involved in these scams.
From Q1 to Q3 of 2022, the FTC saw losses of $2.016 billion to imposter scams overall (under which romance scams are included but no individual figures are available). This is over $300 million (17 percent) more than the losses noted in the same Q1 to Q3 period for 2021 during which $1.719 billion was lost. What this suggests, as we noted above, is that scammers are becoming more targeted in their approach. They may be carrying out fewer scams but are more successful in their extortion tactics.
Please note: The total romance scam figures reported by the FTC are always higher than the total of our individual state figures. This is due to some reports not being assigned to a specific state due to lack of location data.
Over the last five years (from 2016 to 2021), the IC3 has noted a huge increase in romance scams.
From 2016 to 2021, the IC3 has noted a 68 percent increase in romance scam reports (from 14,500 in 2016 to 24,300 in 2021) and a 335 percent increase in the amount lost to these scams (from $220 million in 2016 to $956 million in 2021). This has meant a 162 percent increase in the average amount lost per scam, too – increasing from $15,000 in 2016 to $39,300 in 2021.
Based on the IC3’s 2021 figures and the increase/decrease seen within each state, we estimate that romance scam cases reported to the IC3 could be around 21,000 in 2022. Using the average losses witnessed in 2021, this would equate to a total loss of $887 million in romance scams reported to the IC3 alone.
BBB saw a large increase in romance scams from 2020 to 2021, rising by 43 percent from 184 to 264. Last year, the BBB noted 575 romance scams in its scam tracker, which more than doubles 2021’s figure. However, in 2022’s reports, many of the scams haven’t been assigned to a state. We only use the reports that were allocated to a state (251 in total) in our state estimates.
Nevertheless, the huge spike reported to the BBB appears to coincide with an influx in one particular type of scam–the Wrong Number Scam. This type of scam accounted for 354 of the romance scam reports submitted to the BBB. In this scam, individuals receive a text message from someone who claims they know them. Often, the scammer will ask a question or may send an explicit photo to try and elicit a response from the victim. Scammers then try to glean personal data and may ask for money to meet up with the victim.
Other popular scams included:
- Sugar Daddy/Mom Scam (36 scam reports): Often coming through Instagram, a scammer will offer a “weekly allowance” to the victim under a sugar daddy or mom persona. Victims often receive fake checks and the scammer will ask for an amount of money back while the fake check is pending in their account.
- Investment/Cryptocurrency (24 scam reports): Many romance scam victims are also being pressured into making investments. Also referred to as the “pig-butchering scam”, the scammer claims to be knowledgeable in cryptocurrency and claims to be able to double, triple, or quadruple their money. While the crypto account appears to look real, once the victim asks to extract funds, they are either refused or are met with taxes and fees on top of the money they have already deposited and lost. The IC3 reported that in 2021 they received 4,325 reports of this type of scam with losses exceeding $429 million.
AARP fits a similar storyline with a sharp increase in reported cases from 2020 to 2021, rising 152 percent from 122 to 307 (a further 23 reported as unknown for 2021). In 2022, there were 269 romance scams reported to the AARP. This dip in figures would coincide with similar trends reported by the FTC.
Similar to the BBB, the AARP witnessed a growing trend in phone-based romance scams with explicit photos. In 45 of the reports submitted to the AARP, victims were blackmailed into sending money. After building a relationship with the victim, the scammer records an intimate video call with them and threatens to expose photos/videos to their friends and family via social media if an amount of money isn’t paid.
Even though 2022 may have seen some decline in report figures for some romance scams, the monetary amounts involved in these scams mean 2022 is likely to be a record-breaking year for romance scam losses.
Equally, the decline noted by the FTC may also be due to the type of romance scams that are growing in popularity–e.g. the wrong number scam noted above. With this scam involving a simple text message, many people may delete the message and never report it as a scam to the authorities. Also, people may feel embarrassed to report a scam involving explicit photographs, suggesting why we have seen a large spike in unknown reports at the BBB.
The true cost of romance scams to date could amount to over $526 billion
While the figures we mention above make for stark reading, it’s likely that they’re only half the story with many online scams going under the radar.
Romance scams are highly unreported due to many victims feeling ashamed of having been scammed and how difficult it is to trace the scammers. One survey conducted by the AARP found that 14 percent of US adults had been targeted by a relationship scam and 4 percent were a victim of this type of crime. 57 percent of victims lost money or suffered other financial losses due to these scams.
Based on the current US population of 331.9 million people and 4 percent of these having fallen victim to a romance scam, that would suggest that 13.3 million Americans have been victimized by a romance scammer.
Now, let’s compare that to the number of reports that have been received (up to 2021–we won’t include estimates here). IC3 data for romance scams goes back to 2011 with 150,877 reports. The FTC data goes back to 2012 with 215,740 reported. And the BBB received 1,248 reports from 2015 to 2021, while the AARP received 510 reports between 2019 and 2021. This gives us a total of 368,375 reports, which would mean just 2.8 percent of romance scams are reported.
Even if we allow some room for error and other reports (in previous years, romance scams were perhaps included in another category), we’re still just going to get a fraction of the 4 percent of people who fall victim to these scams each year.
Let’s take a look at how much money could have been lost in each state, based on 4 percent of the population being a victim of these scams and using 2021’s average loss per scam in each state (based on IC3’s data):
Based on the state data we have available for how much the average victim loses, and factoring in unreported romance scams, we can see that as much as $526 billion could have been lost to these scams.
What are the key warning signs of a romance scam?
If you do meet someone online, even if it seems like a natural occurrence (i.e. some scammers befriend people on apps like Words with Friends), look out for these key warning signs that they may be a scammer:
- They ask you to move away from a dating website to communicate. For example, they may request that you chat with them through Google Hangouts, WhatsApp, or private email.
- They ask a lot of questions about you but don’t give much away about themselves.
- They say they’re in the military abroad, they work abroad (i.e. on an oil rig), or they’re helping out abroad (i.e. at an orphanage). They may also say they’re a highly-qualified professional, i.e. a scientist or doctor who’s working abroad.
- They have poor spelling or grammar yet claim to be highly educated.
- They seem to move the relationship quickly, declaring their love or telling you that they’ve never felt this way before.
- They say they want to meet up but find numerous excuses not to, i.e. working abroad, canceled flights, or have financial troubles.
- They ask for money. Even if it is only for a small amount – be wary of anyone asking for financial help. Scammers frequently ask for help in the form of payment/gift cards, too, such as iTunes, Amazon, Steam, or Google Play cards.
- They ask if they can send you a package. In scams, the “package” gets held up in “customs” and you need to pay to have the goods released.
- They say their spouse has died of cancer and they are trying to look after their son/daughter.
- Scammers are often blackmailing victims by building a relationship with them, asking for nude photos to make them vulnerable and then threatening to post those pictures on the internet if they don’t send money in return. The same goes for video calls, sometimes only for a few seconds so they can photoshop the victims face onto an explicit image.
- The FBI has warned people of a rising trend in which scammers are persuading victims to send money to invest or trade cryptocurrency, just one of the new tactics romance scammers are using.
If any of these apply to someone you’ve just met or certain alarm bells are ringing, protect yourself by:
- Ceasing all communication with them.
- Talking to a loved one or friend to get their opinion.
- Searching for any images they’ve sent you using Google’s image reversing tool. Oftentimes, scammers will steal someone’s identity so you may find the image belongs to someone else.
- Looking for scams that sound similar to the stories you’ve been told. For example, if they say they’re in they’re trying to get discharged from the military or are working on an oil rig, look for other stories that sound similar.
To get overall figures for all 50 states plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, we used 2021 data from the IC3, FTC, BBB, and AARP, and all of the available data for 2022 from the latter three.
IC3 Data: Data categorized as “Confidence/Romance Scams.” Reports are reviewed and researched before being passed on to federal, state, local, or international law enforcement or regulatory agencies. To estimate 2022’s figures, we used the percentage increase witnessed in each state from 2020 to 2021 before multiplying by the average loss per victim seen in 2021.
For example, in Alabama, romance scams rose from 226 to 259 from 2020 to 2021. That’s a 15 percent increase year on year. This percent increase was then applied to 2021’s figure (259) to estimate 2021’s figure of 297. The average victim loss in Alabama in 2021 was $25,299. This was then multiplied by our estimated number of cases for 2022 to get a total $ amount lost for the year ($7,509,087).
FTC Data: As the FTC doesn’t provide state-by-state figures for romance scams (as it is a subcategory of imposter scams), we calculate the percentage of overall imposter scams that relate to romance scams based on the total figures available. For Q1, Q2 and Q3 of 2022, this was 9.54 percent. The $ amount lost is derived from overall figures provided by the FTC. A median loss of $2,400 per scam was noted in 2021. This figure was also used for our 2022 estimates.
In order to estimate Q4 figures for the FTC, we looked at the percent increases (or decreases) noted by the FTC in the same reporting periods for 2021 (in each state). These were then applied accordingly to gather estimates for the final quarter of 2022.
For example, in Alabama, there were 1,999 imposter scams recorded in Q3 of 2021. 8 percent of this (to calculate the estimated number of romance scams) is 160. From Q3 to Q4 of 2021, Alabama saw an 11.61 percent decrease in imposter scams/romance scams. An 11.61 percent decrease on 160 is 141 which provides us with the estimated figure for Q4 of 2022.
BBB Data: Data categorized as “Romance Scams” and submitted against companies – i.e., fraudulent dating websites, psychics, and romance scammers who ask people to send money to a business. Complaints were investigated by the BBB.
AARP Data: Data categorized as “Online Dating Scams.” Help may be provided or cases may be referred to local law enforcement.
When discussing the overall figures for the IC3 and FTC, figures may be higher than the total of all the states included in our study. This is due to our study only featuring the 50 states plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. The IC3 and FTC include other areas, e.g. the U.S. Virgin Islands and American Samoa. Some cases don’t have location data so aren’t assigned to a specific state.
Researcher: Charlotte Bond