He’s Single, Sexy, Spiritual — and May Scam You Out of Thousands
Sweetheart swindles top the list of costly consumer frauds. Here’s how to guard your heart and wallet.
This article has been updated to include an episode of the AARP podcast, "The Perfect Scam."
Pop quiz: Which of the following three women wasn’t using her brain when she fell hard for a romance scammer?
A. A Scottsdale, Arizona, woman, 37, visits a handsome, 6-foot, 1-inch rapper in Los Angeles. After connecting online, messaging and talking, this is their first in-person meeting. The next Monday, $3,000 is missing from her account. He’s blocked her number and she can’t remember his address.
B. An Atlanta-area woman bids on a house with her tall, dark and handsome fiancée. She gives him more than $80,000 toward the home to prove she’s serious about their future. She’s known this “millionaire” less than a week.
C. A Charlotte, North Carolina, woman believes she will soon marry a chemical engineer working on assignment in Malaysia. She’s met her silver-haired sweetie on a dating site, but never in real life, yet she wires him her retirement savings of $300,000.
Who’s the dummy? If you’ve answered A, B, C or any combination of the three … you’re wrong. These women’s brains were likely working just fine. It’s what sweetheart swindlers know about our neural functioning when we’re in love that helps them exploit victims. And this is important to understand. Because we read these stories and think I would never fall for something like this. We’re older and wiser, right? Well, victims ages 40 to 69 are the likeliest to have lost money to a romance scammer, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), so that’s a false sense of security.
In fact, according to the agency, over 21,000 people reported having been a target of a romance scam in 2018. Romance scams top the list of consumer fraud in terms of total losses. That same year, those who lost their hearts to a con artist also lost a total of $143 million. The median loss per victim in 2018 was $2,600, seven times higher than for other types of consumer fraud. Folks over 70 lost an average of $10,000.
Related: Oil Tycoon Con Artist Steals More Than Hearts
One woman becomes suspicious after money from her bank account goes missing. Sign up for "The Perfect Scam" Podcast.
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Your Brain on Love
There’s a reason Beyoncé and Jay-Z released “Crazy in Love” together. Who hasn’t lost their fool mind when head-over-heels for somebody? Lord knows I have before I settled down.
That’s because several regions of the brain that activate when we catch feelings are part of a primitive neural network, meaning they developed very early in human evolution. They create a reward circuit that reinforces pleasurable behaviors such as sex, eating and drug use. You’ve just met “the one”? In play are brain chemicals like increased dopamine, which creates an almost narcotic euphoria. You have decreased serotonin, which primes that roller-coaster obsession many new lovers experience. Oxytocin, “the cuddle hormone,” is in the mix, making you feel calm and safe. The Atlanta woman who fell for the seven-day swindle told police she was prone to falling hard and fast for romantic partners. She had gotten engaged to her late husband within three days of meeting him, and their love was legit. So the speed at which things escalated didn’t raise a red flag for her.
While the lovesick brain is being flooded with positive emotions, the neurological pathway involved in critical assessment and social judgment actually shuts down. So not only does love cue warm, fuzzy feelings of hope and security, it can deactivate any sense of objectivity and healthy skepticism. “That’s the neural basis for the ancient wisdom ‘love is blind,’” explains Richard S. Schwartz, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, in On The Brain, the newsletter of the Harvard Mahoney Neuroscience Institute.
That’s the blinded-by-love mental state a scammer wants you in so he or she can rob you blind. So, what sorts of words and deeds will create that dopamine-rich reward path? Another North Carolina victim and her “overseas fiancé” exchanged more than 10,000 text messages over two and a half months. They had more than 400 phone calls. The barrage of selfies he sent her became more and more provocative. And then there were the love song videos.
The L.A. Lothario, alleged to be a serial predator of Black women, was a good listener said a sister who cosigned his lease and was stuck with the missed payments. “In that moment … you almost felt like you were the most important thing to him,” she told theDaily Beast. His texts could make a sister swoon. And he was easy on the eyes: smooth cocoa skin, broad shoulders, six-pack abs and rock-hard, inked biceps. He presented himself as a family man, a single father who’d had a conservative, religious upbringing. Maybe that was enough to make a lady overlook the tat across his back that read “outlaw.”
In a rare case of retribution, many of the victims who unwrapped that chocolate only to find there was no golden ticket actually joined forces online with one another. They tracked down and brought charges against the man they allege is their looting lover boy, Will Jackson, in 2019. But most who get conned don’t have a happy ending.
Red Flags to Avoid
So how can you tell if your would-be dream partner could be more of a nightmare?
… may tell you they have a financial emergency.Your love interest may ask you to send money for a ticket to visit you. He or she may request that you pay an urgent bill and promise to pay you back. You might be asked to open a bank account on your sweetheart’s behalf, or a joint account.
… like to target people going through life struggles.The Atlanta woman mentioned at the top of the story was widowed; another victim of the “Malaysia-based engineer” was battling cancer. A 2019 AARP surveyfound that “targeted or victimized adults are more likely than their counterparts to report experiencing a negative change in their financial status, family relationship problems, loss of a job or divorce.”
… often exploit our insecurities. The Arizona victim had just been stood up by a friend over Christmas and booked her flight to L.A. on a whim. Victims frequently reported to AARP researchers that they find it easy to get emotionally close to others, worry about their future, worry about romantic partners leaving them, feel socially awkward and tend back down even when they know they are right.
… tend to prey on the isolated. “Adults who were targeted or victimized in an online relationship scam are more likely than those who were not targeted or victimized to report they often feel a lack of companionship, left out and isolated from other people,” according to the AARP study.
Guard your wallet and your heart.
· Never send money or gifts to a romantic interest you haven’t met in person, advises the FTC.
· Tell someone you trust about your new boo. Pay attention if your friends or family are concerned.
· Get to know him or her slowly. Ask questions and look for inconsistent statements. Also, don’t ignore any gut feeling that makes you uncomfortable.
· Try a reverse-image search.If the photos are linked to another name or to details that don’t match what you’ve been told, you may be dealing with a scammer.
Learn more of AARP experts’ do’s and don’ts here. And check out this single’s guide to online dating safety.