FBI warns of romance scams using online daters as money mules

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Up to 30 percent of romance fraud victims in 2018 are estimated to have been used as money mules

Scammers are using dating sites and apps not only to scout for lovesick men and women before bilking them out of money, but also to recruit ‘money mules’ for laundering funds obtained in illicit activities.

According to a new warning by the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), the latter flavor of confidence/romance scams commonly involves one of a number of meticulously crafted stories that may ultimately result in the victims unwittingly aiding and abetting a crime.

Oftentimes, the con artists convince their marks to open bank accounts under the guise of sending or receiving funds. “These accounts are used to facilitate criminal activities for a short period of time. If the account is flagged by the financial institution, it may be closed and the actor will either direct the victim to open a new account or begin grooming a new victim,” said the FBI.

In some cases, the fraudster will claim to be a European citizen or an American living abroad and will tell the victim about a “lucrative business opportunity”. The “venture” is said to have already attracted a great deal of interest from investors who are willing to fund it, but need a US bank account into which they can send the money.

The story may be spun further, and the scammer will ultimately convince the victim to open the account in their name or register a limited liability company and allow money transfers to flow into the account. In reality, however, the fraudsters transfer stolen money into the account and instruct their unsuspecting crime accomplices into forwarding the money to accounts controlled by the fraudsters.

A recent report by the Better Business Bureau (BBB) said that up to 30 percent of romance scam victims in 2018 were used as money mules.

Faux romance

Of course, dating sites and apps remain rewarding hunting grounds also for the more usual kind of confidence/romance fraud, where the false admirers establish a romantic or friendly relationship with the victim and use various pretenses to request money or financial details.

The problem is becoming increasingly acute, as in 2018 the IC3 received reports from 18,000 people who claimed to have become victims of confidence/romance fraud. The aggregate losses reached US$362 million – an increase of more than 70 percent from 2017.

“In 2018, confidence/romance fraud was the seventh most commonly reported scam to the IC3 based on the number of complaints received, and the second costliest scam in terms of victim loss,” said the FBI. Only losses that emanated from Business Email Compromise (BEC) and Email Account Compromise (EAC) scams were higher last year, according to the IC3’s annual Internet Crime Report (ICR) that we also wrote about recently.

Worse still, it is generally recognized that most victims are too embarrassed to come forward, so the actual losses are expected to be far higher.

Obviously, romance scammers also scout for victims on social media, where, just like on dating sites, they lure victims with fake online profiles, creating attractive personas and elaborate plots.

Here are two more articles and a video about dating fraud, complete with recommendations for how to stay safe.

When love becomes a nightmare: Online dating scams

When it just doesn’t click: How to date online without being scammed



Tomáš Foltýn




FBI warns of romance scams using online daters as money mules