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Online love scams: How do romance scammers set about their scams?

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Dating sites are not just full of singles looking for love. Sadly, there are also shameless fraudsters who simply want to get as much money out of their victims as possible. 

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    Cyril Senn

    Cyril Senn is a legal expert with AXA-ARAG with a keen interest in everything to do with criminal and traffic law.

How do romance scammers set about their scams?

These insidious love scammers will flirt with their target, showering them with compliments and pretending to be besotted with them – until the target develops feelings for them. This emotional attachment then grows over weeks and months of encouragement by the fraudster, and quite a few people end up falling into the trap: when their "ideal" partner asks for a large sum of money, they don't suspect a scam and willingly pay up. In many cases, this happens more than once.

They might say they need to replace important documents stolen from a hotel room, pay for a family member's medical treatment, or buy a ticket to Switzerland. The sob stories vary, but the intent is always the same.

Fake profile pictures

Most of these love and romance scammers present themselves as people in respectable jobs like architects, doctors, or company bosses. As a rule, though, their profile pictures are either faked or stolen. It's common for them to break off all contact as soon as the victim hands over the money they asked for. So-called "money mules" transfer the money to a third-party account, withdraw it and then mail it to another country, making it much harder for law enforcement to work out who's really behind the scam. This is why it's all the more important to report the crime to the police straight away.

Want to protect yourself from love scams?

If the person you're in a chat with starts asking for money, never pay up. Block and report their account immediately. Never give out sensitive information such as your home address, password, or credit card number while using these websites. If someone asks you for this sort of information, cut them off immediately. A rule of thumb is that you should never hand money over to someone you've never actually met in person and don't know well. You should also take care to check that you're dealing with a real person and not a fake profile.  Remember: things aren't always what they seem.

Victims of online love scams often lose large amounts of money. On average, around CHF 10,000 is paid in each case, be it for an emergency operation, lost luggage or flights to Switzerland. Many victims even get themselves into debt for their supposed true love.

Cyril Senn, legal expert at AXA-ARAG

What can victims of love scams do?

Love scam victims should definitely contact the financial institution involved to prevent any more money changing hands, cancel payments if possible, and maybe block their credit cards.

Should you press charges? 

Reporting the crime to the police is advisable, even though many love scammers are not in Switzerland and hard to track down. It can also help in cases where the bank intends to take legal action against the victim, for instance accusing him or her of money laundering. Many victims put off going to the police because they are ashamed, so the number of unreported crimes is probably very high. However, pressing charges makes it easier for the police to investigate and might stop other people from falling victim to the same scammer. 

How to spot an online love scammer:

  • Asks for money – very often through a Western Union wire transfer.
  • Wants to continue contact away from the dating site, e.g. through a Hotmail or Yahoo address, an instant messaging service or an 0900 number.
  • Tells a sob story: had something stolen from a hotel room, can't afford a flight or a visa or medical treatment. The stories vary, but they all involve an urgent need for money.
  • Writes in a strange mix of languages or makes lots of mistakes in English (might be using an online translation service).
  • Never makes any reference to your profile and writes in very general terms.

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