We sat down with Sheryl Harris, Director of the Cuyahoga County Department of Consumer Affairs, to discuss romance scams and the lies that scammers tell to lure in their victims. The Cuyahoga County Department of Consumer Affairs organizes Scam Squad, a multidisciplinary senior financial fraud task force made up of local nonprofits, social service agencies, and local, state and federal consumer protection and law enforcement agencies. Harris and the Scam Squad want you to know first and foremost, there are bad people out there who look and sound good, but there are warning signs and steps you can take to protect yourself and your loved ones.
Ohio Legal Help (OLH): A lot of us have heard the term “romance” or “sweetheart” scam, but what exactly is a romance scam? How common are they?
Sheryl Harris (SH): In a typical romance scam, a scammer will use a fake name and stolen profile picture to lure you in. They reach out to you with a story that is completely untrue to lure you into a relationship with them in order to get money from you. In most romance scams, the scammers and victims never meet. These relationships feel like you have a real connection, but they are dangerous. Romance scams are different from catfishing scams in that they are entirely designed to get your money.
It can be hard to say how common they are because people often do not realize it is a scam and find it hard to get out of it. They typically don’t realize they’ve been victimized until they’ve been completely cleaned out of their money. They also feel like it was entirely their fault and do a lot of victim blaming, and so people do not want to talk about it.
However, we [the Scam Squad] have started talking about romance scams a lot and the more outreach we do on it, the more people we see coming forward saying that they were a victim. In Cuyahoga county, romance scams have made our top 10 list for 2020. They seem to be steadily increasing, and it could be due to how isolated people are right now because of the pandemic.
OLH: Is there a certain demographic, age group or population that falls victim to romance scams in particular?
SH: Yes. With most scams, we see victims of all ages. However, with romance scams, younger people do not make for very good targets for scammers since they often do not have a lot of money. Scammers prefer people who are middle-aged and older. Often, these victims have already had a rewarding relationship that they have lost and they want to recreate it. They are more emotionally vulnerable and looking for someone to fill that void.
OLH: What are the warning signs or red flags that it is a romance scam?
SH: Unlike other scams, romance scams are “long cons.” The scammer conditions the person for awhile before they make the first ask. There will be some ramp up time, and they won’t always reach out through a dating site. It is often through social media or an online interest group. If someone is reaching out to you on an interest forum like a Facebook group, they will try to pull you from that site because that site may recognize their profile as a scam. That’s a major red flag.
The biggest warning sign, however, is when the person you are in love with online starts suggesting that you move money from you to them or to a source that they suggest. The minute an online love interest starts telling you a sob story and asks for your money, that is the time to end it.
They won’t usually ask for a large sum of money and instead it will be smaller increments. We often suggest to victims that if you suspect your boyfriend or girlfriend is scamming you, write down all of the money you have sent to that person and make note if they paid you back for any of it.
They also may ask for intimate photos or videos and then use those blackmail you if you threaten to end the relationship or stop sending money. No matter how much you like the person, you need to be aware that they could use these photos or videos to stop you from reporting the scam.
OLH: What are some of the typical lies scammers tell?
SH: There is always a reason why they cannot see someone in person. Pre-pandemic, they might say they were in the military, or pretend like they are overseas or in another part of the country. They also would try to establish trust by saying they worked for a relief organization or NGO, or would claim they were a minister or a college professor doing research overseas. If someone is claiming they are a member of the military, they can visit https://www.cid.army.mil/romancescam.html for more information on what to look out for.
Now, the pandemic has created a built-in reason why they cannot see someone. They can claim they are in another state, which is most likely not the case, but it seems more trustworthy.
Another lie that is happening more frequently is a romance scam where there is an investment component built in. The scammer would reach out, romance the person, and let them know about a “great investment opportunity.” The victim would then send money to buy stocks that aren’t real and the investment angle makes it seem like you aren’t sending money to the significant other.
OLH: What are some tools that people can use to check to see if they are being scammed? How can they gather evidence?
SH: If the person is usually a particularly poetic line, you can google search to see if it has been taken from somewhere else. Additionally, plug their profile photo into a Google image search or a site like Tineye.com. If the photo is attached to another name, there’s a good chance it’s a stolen pic.
However, scammers are now digitally altering the photos they use to make it more difficult to search for it in other places. Unfortunately, as soon as victims know of certain tips to protect themselves, the scammers are trying to thwart that.
OLH: If you suspect a loved one is involved in a romance scam, what should you do?
SH: Too often, we see a family member or friend tell someone that they are involved in a scam, and that person will turn around and ask the scammer, “Are you a scammer?” Of course, the scammer will say no, but then the scammer will turn it around and say that the family member or friend doesn’t want them to be happy. They will poison the real relationship and create a tighter bond between the scammer and the victim.
In our department, we work with family and friends about how to approach these situations. We ask families, “Who is the best listener in the family? Who is able to gently bring up this issue?” That is the person who should be approaching the victim first. It is really delicate work, and research is always a good idea – both about romance scams and about the significant other before approaching your loved one.
One of the other methods we have found effective is to show the victim a “Dr. Phil” show about these scams. They can watch the video, start to relate to it and draw the parallels. It’s a good way to help with the “break up” process because not only are they going through financial issues with it, but emotional ones as well. People often beat themselves up about these scams, but we always tell them, “In this situation, there is one person who is a professional at this because they do it 24/7 and learn from their mistakes. They are the pro, and you are the amateur. It is not your fault.”
OLH: What is your number 1 tip to avoid a romance scam?
SH: Really get to know the person you are talking to online and understand that there are bad people who look and sound good who are only after your money. If things ever seem weird, trust your gut.
For more information about romance scams, visit the Federal Trade Commission here: https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/what-you-need-know-about-romance-scams.
The US Postal Inspection Service also has information about romance scams and PSAs here: https://www.uspis.gov/news/scam-article/romance-scam/.
To report a romance scam, go to the FTC at www.ftc.gov/complaint. Notify the website or app where you met the scammer, too. You can also report the scam if it involves dollar losses to the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center here: https://www.ic3.gov/.
For Cuyahoga county residents, go to ConsumerAffairs.CuyahogaCounty.us or call the Scam Squad at 216-443-SCAM (7226).