Romance Scammers Are Targeting Younger People: Here’s What You Need to Know

A woman looks up as the heart she is carrying is attached to a string.
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As if finding your soulmate isn’t hard enough, scammers have infiltrated social media and dating sites to take your money and dash your dreams. So how do you avoid romance scams?

“In our recent Modern Love study … one-third of Americans (31%) said they’d had an online love interest turn out to be a scammer, and 42% of people said they’d come across fake profiles or photos that look AI-generated in the past year, on dating websites, apps, or on social media,” according to Steve Grobman, CTO of the online security company McAfee.

Knowing the risks is the first step in protecting yourself. We list some facts along with a few tips to keep your heart and bank account safe.

Romance Scams by the Numbers

A common misconception is that scams primarily affect older adults. While the 60- to 69-year-old age group tends to experience bigger financial losses from fraud, romance scammers have set their sights on younger people.

Love scams saw a shift after the pandemic, according to the Federal Trade Commission. In the first three quarters of 2019, the 50- to 59-year-old age group reported the most romance scams, and was barely beat out by the 40- to 49 -year-old group in the fourth quarter. Flash forward to 2023, people in their 20s and 30s reported the most in quarters two and three, respectively. The younger age groups have reported the most romance scams in at least two quarters of each year since 2019.

Victims aren’t limited by gender, either. More men than women — 59% to 44% — reported encountering scammers on online dating apps, according to a 2022 Statista survey.

Romance scammers don’t discriminate — they are after money or personal information, which means they could empty your bank account and put your credit score at risk.

How Romance Scams Work

Romance scams don’t only pop up on online dating sites. Scammers also use social media platforms.

Though incidents can vary, most online romance scams follow a similar pattern. A scammer reaches out and gets to know you. You make a connection. At some point, your new Romeo or Juliet needs help. They offer a convincing story that encourages you to send money or banking details. Next thing you know, you’ve been swindled.

“Every fraudster starts with a basic ploy, then makes it their own,” said John Wilson, senior fellow of threat research at Fortra. “They leverage publicly available information from social media sites, public records and even the trash. Everything can be faked and made to look legitimate, including websites, emails and caller IDs.”

Spotting Romance Scams

You don’t have to give up on love to avoid fraud. With a little diligence, you can spot a fake and avoid romance scams. Here are some telltale signs you might be dealing with a swindler.

1. Requests for Money

Money can’t buy you love, so there’s no reason someone should want you to empty your wallet. Even if you’ve met in person, be wary of anyone asking for financial help. Keep in mind that scammers can be convincing.

The FTC reported $469,863,188 in monetary losses from love scams from all age groups in 2023. That’s a 104% increase from the $229,302,771 in losses reported in 2019.

“Fraudsters typically tug on heartstrings when they ask for cash or gift cards, often elaborating with details like the need to save their small business or to pay overdue medical bills for them or a loved one,” said Christopher Schnieper, senior director of fraud and identity at LexisNexis Risk Solutions.

2. Requests for Information

A scammer’s bottom line is all about dollar signs. With enough personally identifiable information, a scammer could gain access to your bank accounts, create identifying documents like passports and driver’s licenses, take out loans in your name and much more.

If someone’s fishing for your mother’s maiden name, your bank account information, your passwords or a copy of your passport or driver’s license, there’s a good chance identity theft is the endgame.

3. They Want to Switch Platforms

Another sign someone might be up to no good is rushing to communicate on another platform. It could be a sign they’re afraid their account might be reported and shut down. Also, as Wilson points out, WhatsApp and Google Chat give fraudsters certain advantages. They can work in teams and reply to messages 24/7.

Dating site scams can also quickly morph into another type of fraud known as an investment scam. By moving you to an encrypted platform like WhatsApp, fraudsters can talk you into investing funds on a fake crypto platform, said Rebecca Alter, trust & safety architect at Sift.

“When satisfied with the amount ‘invested,’ the scammer takes the funds and disappears,” Alter said. “Some will even go so far as to create fake websites and images to give someone the illusion their investments are growing, compelling them to send more money.”

How to Avoid Romance Scams

If you’re hoping to find love online, here are some steps you can take to avoid romance scams along the way.

1. Protect Your Privacy

Scammers research victims. If you regularly post information about yourself on public-facing platforms, your social media oversharing could be making it easier for criminals to scam you. Dr. Zulfikar Ramzan, chief scientist and executive vice president of product and development at Aura, recommends using a different profile picture for each app.

“When you use the same photos across various apps, it’s easier for someone to perform a reverse image search and discover your personal information,” Ramzan said.

2. Insist on Going Live

One quick way to verify someone’s identity and avoid romance scams is to request a live video session. Photos and recorded videos can be faked, but an impromptu request to video chat is tougher to manipulate. If the person is hesitant to meet in person or, at the very least, do a quick video chat, it’s probably a bad sign.

“Even if a love interest agrees to a live video or sends a recorded video, deepfake videos appear very real, so be on guard,” Schnieper said.

3. Research Your Love Interests

If you develop an interest in someone, head straight to Google and start researching. Start with their full name if you have it, and reverse image search their photo. Unfortunately, according to Roger Grimes, data-driven defense evangelist at KnowBe4, this might not be as easy as it once was.

“It used to be that the scammers copied pictures from other innocent people’s social media accounts,” Grimes said. “Now they are mostly AI-generated. Still, many times the same AI-generated image is used against multiple victims.”

4. Report the Incident

If you do find yourself dealing with a romance scam, it’s important to report it as soon as possible. Authorities and apps can’t shut down fraudsters if they don’t know about it.

Here are steps you can take to recover financial losses.

Stephanie Faris is a professional finance writer with more than a decade of experience. Her work has been featured on a variety of top finance sites, including Money Under 30, GoBankingRates, Retirable, Sapling and Sifter.