Love can blossom online – but what if the charmer is a cheat?

True love, which is bound by neither time nor place, can be found online. Unfortunately, unscrupulous criminals are also lurking in wait for people in search of romance. What are the tell-tale signs of a romance scam, and what do such scams involve?

Romance scammers pose as the partner of their victim’s dreams, and strive to win trust. Once trust is established, they ask for money on a number of pretexts – but are only after financial gain for themselves.

People fall for romance scams regardless of their educational achievements, profession, gender or age. You may know someone who is being scammed right now.

Hundreds of romance scams are reported every year

Several hundred romance scams are reported to the police each year in Finland, which shows that they are unfortunately common.

No information is available on how many cases remain unreported. However, we know that many victims are too embarrassed to tell the police, or even friends and family.

Romance scams follow a familiar pattern

The typical romance scam tends to unfold as follows:

  1. The victim encounters a new, interesting person through a chat forum, dating service, or the social media.
  2. Over time, the conversation becomes more intimate. The victim becomes emotionally involved — could this be my soul mate? This is followed by anxious waits for the next message, infatuation, perhaps a budding romance.
  3. The first meeting is fixed. The victim’s hopes are raised: perhaps dreams of a future together and mounting anticipation before the date. Hardly being able to wait is a further sign of infatuation.
  4. However, just before the agreed meeting, something unfortunate and unexpected happens: the charmer, or a friend or family member of theirs, has an accident or falls ill, or their passport is lost.
  5. This results in unexpected costs for the charmer, who asks the victim for help: for some reason, the charmer cannot access their bank account. Of course, they promise to pay everything back as soon as possible.

If a relationship with a new acquaintance progresses to this stage, you should think carefully about your next move. Does it make sense to send money to someone you have never met?

Even if your own feelings are genuine, those of the other person may not be. The object of your affections may actually be a criminal gang working professionally in shifts to scam several people simultaneously.

Romance scams tend to be well organised, professional operations. The scammers take notes of their chats to avoid getting their stories crossed. Any money taken from the victims is used to fund the scammers’ criminal lifestyles — and further scamming.

How can I spot a romance scammer?

Below are a few tips on how to identify a typical online scammer.

  • Men are often approached by women living in Eastern Europe, who are usually much younger and very attractive. They promise to come and meet the man, but first need money for a passport, visa, air tickets, general travel expenses…
  • Women are typically approached by men in military service, or doctors or oil rig workers. The man claims to be financially well off and promises to repay all expenses as soon as they reach Finland and life together begins.
  • Romance scammers claim that they cannot make a video call: their camera is broken, or they are involved in a secret military operation and video calls are banned.
  • For some reason, the scammer cannot use their own bank account. They need a loan in order to come and meet the victim — a meeting which they claim to be impatiently waiting for.
  • The scammer asks for the money to be sent to the account of a person they trust, or someone handling matters on their behalf. They claim to be in Afghanistan, for example, but ask for the credit transfer to be made to, say, a Belgian or Nigerian account.

If you become suspicious, make at least the following checks:

  • Perform a reverse image search for the person’s picture.
  • If you find the same image from the reverse image search, but the name is different or the picture is from an image bank, you are being scammed.
  • Make a video call to the person. Be suspicious if they refuse to show their face clearly in a video call.

What should I do if I suspect that I have been scammed?

  • Contact your bank immediately, if you have already transferred money to an online charmer. The bank can try to get your money back, or at least make life difficult for the scammers. Don’t worry about contacting your bank: the bank’s job is to help you keep your money safe, not to judge or criticise your conduct.
  • Report the offence to the police.