Nearly 100,000 Americans set to lose over $800 million to romance scams this year

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 100,000 Americans this year, the saying “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is” has likely become a haunting, real-life nightmare. Scammed for over $800 million 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 findings, there could be a 59 percent increase in the number of romance scams this year (from just over 62,000 in 2020) and a 30 percent increase in the total amount lost (up from $627 million in 2020).

Why the huge increase?

With the COVID-19 pandemic ongoing, scammers had more reason than ever to prey on those isolated at home (and had the perfect excuse as to why they can’t meet in person). Numerous studies, experts, and surveys have found that an increasing number of people are feeling lonelier than ever amid the pandemic. And that’s provided the perfect inroad for many fraudsters who prey upon those who are looking for someone to talk to.

What’s more, 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 rise even higher over the last few 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 2020 data and all of the available data for 2021 so far, we’ve been able to create estimates for the entire year to try and understand the true picture of romance scams in 2021.

Key findings:

  • An estimated 98,423 people will fall victim to romance scams in 2021–a 59 percent increase from 2020 (62,011)
  • Losses from these scams are set to cost around $813.5 million–a 30 percent increase from 2020 ($627 million)
  • The FTC saw a 57 percent increase in the number of romance scams reported in the first half of this year (compared to the same period in 2020), rising from 23,043 to 36,290
  • BBB has seen a 16 percent increase in romance scam reports (from 184 to 213) with two-and-a-half months of reports yet to come through
  • AARP has seen more than double the number of cases it saw in 2020 (from 122 to 254), also with two-and-a-half months of reports yet to come through

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:

  1. Alaska – 89.26 romance scams per 100,000 people
  2. District of Columbia – 58.38 romance scams per 100,000 people
  3. Vermont – 42.15 romance scams per 100,000 people
  4. Rhode Island – 41.44 romance scams per 100,000 people
  5. Washington – 39.07 romance scams per 100,000 people

As the above 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:

  1. California – 11,310 romance scams with a total loss of $173.8 million
  2. Texas – 8,111 romance scams with a total loss of $65.9 million
  3. Florida – 6,881 romance scams with a total loss of $58.8 million
  4. New York – 5,868 romance scams with a total loss of $41.8 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 2020 data). The states with the highest average loss per romance scam were:

  1. Michigan – $50,028
  2. District of Columbia – $44,109
  3. California – $38,743

In contrast, the states with the lowest averages per romance scam were:

  1. Delaware – $8,424
  2. Wyoming – $8,573
  3. West Virginia – $11,521

 

Romance scams have increased by 57 percent in 2021

In 2019, the FTC alone received 39,873 reports of romance scams. This increased by around 36 percent in 2020 with 54,183 reports in total.

So far, the FTC has only released Q1 and Q2 figures for 2021, which amount to 36,290. As noted previously, this is a 57 percent increase on the same period last year (23,043).

Romance scams reported to the FTC

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.

A growing trend is something the IC3 has witnessed, too.

From 2016 to 2020, the IC3 has noted a 63 percent increase in romance scam reports (from 14,500 in 2016 to 23,800 in 2020) and a 172 percent increase in the amount lost to these scams (from $220 million in 2016 to $600 million in 2020). This has meant a 67 percent increase in the average amount lost per scam, too – increasing from $15,000 in 2016 to $25,300 in 2020.

Romance scams reported to IC3

Even though the BBB saw a decline in romance scam reports in 2020 (a decrease of 10 percent from 205 in 2019 to 184 in 2020), the reports so far this year (to mid-October) have already overtaken both 2019’s and 2020’s totals. With 213 reports recorded to date, the BBB has noted a significant increase in romance scams for the year, too. As it stands, the BBB could receive as many as 269 reports this year, which would be a 46 percent increase from last year’s figures.

AARP fits a similar storyline with a slow increase in reported cases from 2019 to 2020 (80 to 122), followed by a huge increase in 2021. With 254 romance scams reported to date (mid-October), the AARP could witness a reporting figure of around 321 cases this year–a 163 percent year-on-year increase.

With all of the reporting avenues noting significant increases in romance scams this year (bar the IC3 which will release its 2021 results in early 2022), 2021 is set to be a record-breaking year for this type of imposter scam.

The true cost of romance scams to date could amount to over $331 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 feeling ashamed of having fallen victim to them and due to 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.

Now, let’s compare that to the number of reports that have been received (up to 2020–we won’t include estimates here). IC3 data for romance scams goes back to 2011 with 126,578 reports. The FTC data goes back to 2012 with 178,117 reported. And the BBB received 1,012 reports from 2015 to 2020, while the AARP received 202 reports between 2019 and 2020. This gives us a total of 305,909 reports, which would mean just 2.3 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% of the population being a victim of these scams and using 2020’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 $331 billion could have been lost to these scams (to date).

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.

Methodology

To get overall figures for all 50 states plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, we used 2020 data from the IC3, FTC, BBB, and AARP, and all of the available data for 2021 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 2021’s figures, we used the percentage increase witnessed in each state from 2019 to 2020 before multiplying by the average loss per victim seen in 2020.

For example, in Alabama, romance scams rose from 201 to 226 from 2019 to 2020. That’s an 11 percent increase year on year. This percent increase was then applied to 2020’s figure (226) to estimate 2021’s figure of 251. The average victim loss in Alabama in 2020 was $22,120. This was then multiplied by our estimated number of cases for 2021 to get a total $ amount lost for the year ($5,552,114).

https://www.ic3.gov/Media/PDF/AnnualReport/2019State/StateReport.aspx

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 and Q2 of 2021, this was 6.52 percent. The $ amount lost is derived from overall figures provided by the FTC. A median loss of $2,500 per scam was noted in 2020. This figure was also used for our 2021 estimates.

https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/blogs/data-spotlight/2021/02/romance-scams-take-record-dollars-2020

In order to estimate Q3 and Q4 figures for the FTC, we looked at the percent increases (or decreases) noted by the FTC in the same reporting periods for 2020 (in each state). These were then applied accordingly to gather estimates for the second-half of 2021.

For example, in Alabama, there were 2,276 imposter scams recorded in Q2 of 2021. 6.52 percent of this (to calculate the estimated number of romance scams) is 148. From Q2 to Q3 of 2020, Alabama saw a 72.14 percent increase in imposter scams/romance scams. A 72.14 percent increase on 148 is 255. Then, from Q3 to Q4 of 2020, Alabama saw a 19.23 percent increase in imposter scams. This provides an estimated figure for Q4 of 2021 of 305.

https://public.tableau.com/profile/federal.trade.commission#!/vizhome/TheBigViewAllSentinelReports/TopReports

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. Due to data being available up until our reporting period (mid-October 2021), no estimates have been applied to these figures.

https://www.bbb.org/

AARP Data: Data categorized as “Online Dating Scams.” Help may be provided or cases may be referred to local law enforcement. Due to data being available up until our reporting period (mid-October 2021), no estimates have been applied to these figures.

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. Equally, some cases don’t have location data so aren’t assigned to a specific state.

State populations: https://www.census.gov/data/datasets/time-series/demo/popest/2010s-state-total.html

Researchers: Charlotte Bond, Rebecca Moody