2021 Valentine’s Day celebrations are not immune to the permeating effects of the pandemic, especially in light of the Covid-19 surge in romance scams. Fraudsters are taking advantage of the heightened use of dating apps and the legitimate barriers to in-person dating in order to carry out their scams. Scammers develop a virtual relationship, strengthen the connection while unsuspiciously avoiding in-person meetups, and eventually make credible requests for money before disappearing. The conditions created by the pandemic “are ripe for such fraud.”
As people spend more time online, feel more reliant on dating apps, and have more convincing reasons for monetary requests (e.g., medical bills), romance fraud has flourished. The Federal Trade Commission reports that consumers lost over $300 million to romance scams in 2020, which represents a stark increase from the year prior (51%).
The FBI is warning the public to be on high alert of these prolific scams in the wake of Valentine’s Day, cautioning: “never send money to anyone you don’t know personally.” Further, the FTC is emphasizing the crucial role that companies play in protecting their consumers. It is the responsibility of “companies bound by anti-money-laundering rules to report suspicious activity,” and to adjust systems to adapt to the new tactics employed by fraudsters.
One such example of company intervention is Western Union Co. To remedy criminal and civil charges brought against the money-transfer company—for failing to effectively police customers who were using its services to engage in fraud—Western Union has significantly improved its monitoring technology, leading to a stark decrease in reported romance scams.
It is crucial for companies to stay ahead of fraudsters’ evolving tactics through data analytics tools and other technological safeguards, however Western Union’s competitors also highlight the need for customer outreach and education. Not only has the pandemic created an increased reliance on, and normalcy around, online relationships, but it has also increased people’s “loneliness, isolation, and vulnerability.” Companies must recognize that people tend to be gullible in the face of loneliness and opportunity for romance and promptly inform victims of a potential for fraud to which they might be blind.
Regulators warn that scammers will be especially active as people are looking for love this Valentine’s Day. A study warns that the implications of such scams is far greater than a one-time monetary hit: the fraud usually continues after the original scam, and importantly, the emotional harm to the victim can be more harmful than the monetary loss.
Both companies and consumers need to be on high alert in proximity to Valentine’s Day, as the holiday provides scammers with yet another opportunity to strike. Shakespeare might tell us “love is blind,” but this year, we must all keep our eyes wide open to the reality of scammers.