The Twelve Frauds of Christmas – Romance Fraud

Robin Pugh

Loneliness can hit hard around the holiday season.  Everywhere you look, happy couples and families are enjoying the festivities of the season together, which makes the holiday season an ideal time for romance scammers to target victims.  

Romance fraud occurs when a criminal targets a victim and builds a trust relationship, often based on purported romantic intentions, and leverages that relationship to compel the victim to send them money, valuable items, or even participate in criminal activity like laundering money or even becoming a drug or money mule.  

2021 IC3 Report showing Romance Fraud as the 3rd leading category of loss

In 2021, the FBI’s IC3 received complaints from nearly 25,000 victims who experienced more than $956 million in losses to Confidence Fraud/Romance scams, which makes this cybercrime typology the third-leading category of losses, second only to Business Email Compromise and Investment Fraud.  

IC3 Graph showing Victim breakdown by Age

Typically, the fraudster will use a fake online profile, usually on a social media platform or a data site, to approach the victim.  These romance criminals are very patient, and have become much more sophisticated in their communication with the victim, many of them purchasing templates from other criminals on how to guide the conversation and how to say things that will reduce the victim’s suspicions and continue to build trust.  Often, the profile pictures of the fraudster will be of a military officer or a single dad with a cute child – a child who needs a new, rich mommy, by the way! They will build a scenario that typically includes them being away for work-related travel or having a job that keeps them from being in the US as much as they’d like. They will often need money to travel to visit the victim, and typically, along the route, they will have a car accident, or their luggage will be detained and they’ll need additional funds to help cover the costs until they can get their paycheck deposited.

Examples of fake accounts created to look like 4-Star Generals for the purpose of Romance Fraud [Gary Warner]

More recently, Romance fraud victims have been pressured into investment opportunities, most typically involving cryptocurrency.   In 2021, the IC3 received more than 4,325 complaints, with losses over $429 million, from Romance Fraud victims who also reported the use of investments and cryptocurrency.  

In 2019, I had the opportunity to meet with a woman who lives in a town near me in North Carolina, who had lost over $60,000 to a romance criminal.  She was approached through her public Facebook profile by a handsome single man who worked on an offshore oil rig.  Over the course of a few weeks, they developed a close relationship and she fell in love with him.  She couldn’t wait for him to come visit her, and they made plans for him to fly into the Charlotte airport in a few months, when he would be able to take some time away from the oil rig.  Unfortunately, his boss held up his last paycheck before vacation, due to having to wait until some outstanding invoices were settled up with his company, so he asked our victim if she could help him by sending him money for his airline ticket and some travel expenses – of course, he would pay her back as soon as his paycheck was direct-deposited.  

Once he landed in Charlotte, he was going to take a car service to her house, which was about 45 minutes away, but, unfortunately, the car was in a terrible accident and he was injured.  He had to be life-flighted to the local hospital, and she wasn’t aware of his location or condition for many days.  When he finally “regained consciousness” after the fictitious car accident, he sent her a note asking for large amounts of money to help with his medical expenses.  She was all too willing to comply.

Over the course of several months, one reason after another was given as to why he needed money, and she was always generous.  You see, on her public Facebook profile, she had shared her life’s story for everyone to see: she was a lonely, single woman who recently sold a nice home in Tennessee and had moved to North Carolina to be closer to family.  The criminal was easily able to ascertain her vulnerability to an emotional relationship and also able to validate that, due to the recent sale of real estate, she had access to liquid funds.  

When I met with her, she had already discovered that her online love was not who he said he was.  She had learned his true identity as a young teenage boy living in Nigeria.  At this point, they had had many conversations on WhatsApp and even had spoken by voice on WhatsApp.  He had now switched his strategy from romance fraud to simply telling her his true life’s circumstances of absolute poverty in West Africa.  She still sends him money from time to time.  She’s embarrassed that she was deceived and sad that she lost a significant portion of her life’s savings, but she’s not mad at him for the deception and lies.  She’s still thankful to have someone to talk to and someone who depends on her.

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