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Savannah Palmira’s heart sank when her 64-year-old mother announced over Christmas dinner that she had met a man online.
“I just knew she was being scammed,” said Palmira, who lives in her hometown of Las Vegas. “She’s been scammed before.”
Cheerfully, Palmira’s mom announced that the man she had met through Facebook was an orthopedic surgeon from Portland, Oregon who was temporarily working out of Yemen, “helping the troops.” Palmira immediately demanded to see her mom’s phone and discovered that the man had asked her for money, but Palmira couldn’t tell how much.
“I told her she needed to get rid of him, get him off her Facebook,” Palmira said. “She says she has not given him money, but I can’t trust that to be true.”
Palmira’s story is hardly unusual.
Over the past five years, Americans have reported losing $1.3 billion to online dating scams, according to the Federal Trade Commission. The most recent FTC data shows such scams were up nearly 80 percent since 2020, with approximately $547 million lost to swindlers in 2021 alone. Known as “romance scams,” these are the largest category of fraud now tracked by the FTC.
And it isn’t always a victim’s money that’s at risk. A clever con artist can not only leave their mark broke and brokenhearted, but also facing money laundering charges.
Romance scams have been on the rise for years, but they’ve only become a hot-button topic recently, with the February release of the Netflix documentary The Tinder Swindler, about an Israeli man named Simon Leviev (aka Shimon Hayut) who conned Tinder matches out of money by pretending he was a wealthy diamond heir in danger. Leviev was arrested in 2019, but only served five months of a 15-month jail sentence.
As a recent Today show segment reported, “‘Tinder Swindler’ [has spotlighted the] rise of scammers using online dating.”
Romance scams tend to target people like Palmira’s mother, older people in their 50s or 60s who are recently widowed and have resources.
Younger people are not typically targeted for this particular form of fraud, as they’re usually asset-light and don’t have a long history of companionship. Instead, young people engaged in online dating need to worry about ransom scams, where fraudsters try to extort targets for a one-time payment by first coercing them into sending compromising photographs and then threatening to expose the revealing pictures if they don’t pay up.
Romance scams, on the other hand, are a long con, intended to suck targets dry of their funds through repeated requests for money. The scams work because older people tend to have a long history of companionship and when that evaporates through either death or divorce, they become vulnerable to manipulation.
The tales romance scammers spin tend to have common traits. If the scammer is male, for example, he’ll usually claim to be in the military or working out of the country.
Sometimes the scammers will ask for money for a plane ticket, ostensibly so they can meet their victim. But that’s less common because that’s a one-off con. Rather, romance scammers typically concoct elaborate stories in which they claim to be the victim of a series of accidents and in constant need of more and more money.
For example, a scammer might say his or her son, who is serving overseas in the military, was recently wounded and needs money for medical care and a flight home. The target, feeling sympathetic, will wire the scammer some money. Shortly thereafter, the scammer will say there was another emergency and the cycle will repeat again.
Romance scammers spend an enormous amount of time building relationships with their victims. They will invest hours online chatting over many days developing a rapport with their targets, in the hopes of securing their heartstrings when it comes time to ask for money.
While the scammers typically claim to be American, many are in fact based in Africa and they will troll for targets not only on dating sites like Tinder and Match, but also on other social media platforms, like Facebook.
The prominence of The Tinder Swindler is beginning to lead state legislators to respond to the rising threat of romance scams.
In February, the New York State Senate passed NY S 166, by Democrat Michael Gianaris, which would require financial institutions to warn consumers about romance scams whenever they want to send funds electronically.
“What the bill would do would require a halt to that process and a warning,” Gianaris told the New York City radio station 1010 WINS. “So, at the moment where you’re asking a bank to execute a transfer like that, the bank would be required to stop, warn you that, ‘Do you know that this is not a fraud? Are there any suspicious things about it?’ And oftentimes when people get kinda stopped in their tracks that way they’re able to re-think things and not go forward.”
The bill, which is now in the Assembly Banking Committee, would affect not only banks but also financial apps like Venmo. But even with all the attention now focused on the likes of The Tinder Swindler, it remains to be seen if more lawmakers will be introducing similar bills in their states.
One person for sure hopes they do.
“I’m glad to hear someone is trying to attack this problem through legislation,” said Palmira, referring to the New York bill. “I wish that bill had more teeth, but it’s definitely a great start.”
-- By SNCJ Correspondent Brian Joseph
New York is the only state that has considered legislation in the 2021-2021 biennium addressing romance scams involving money transmissions (SB 166). But numerous states have considered bills dealing with the financial exploitation of the elderly, many of which have been enacted, including one in New York (SB 6528).