Victims of online dating scams speak out on what they’ve learned: ‘Have your guard up when you’re vulnerable’

·11 min read
Romance scams have seen a huge spike in the last year, culiminating in nearly a billion dollars, according to the FBI. (Photo Illustration by Chukrut Budrul/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Romance scams have seen a huge spike in the last year, culminating in nearly a billion dollars, according to the FBI. (Photo Illustration by Chukrut Budrul/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

They say love is blind. And now scammers are banking on it.

Romance scams — a type of con in which online fraudsters lead a person on with talk of romance (typically in the form of manipulative love-bombing) before eventually swindling them out of hard-earned cash — are on the rise, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

And so is pop culture's fixation with them — as evidenced by the fascination surrounding Israeli con-man Simon Leviev, whose tale of using Tinder to emotionally manipulate hundreds of thousands of dollars out of women who ultimately take him down became fodder for Netflix's British true-crime documentary and sleeper hit, The Tinder Swindler.

"It's incredible to have a story where the women kind of triumphed, and where the women take control and where their action has a reaction," director Felicity Morris tells Yahoo Life of the film, which she made largely as a cautionary tale.

It's one that bears repeating: In 2021 alone, according to the FTC, the median individual reported loss due to romance scams was around $2,400, with a total reported loss of $547 million from romance scams, a nearly 80 percent increase over 2020. A similar report from the FBI found an even higher number, with an estimated total of $1 billion lost to romance scams last year — and that just accounts for those who reported the crimes.

But just as damaging as the financial losses, say those who've been through it, is the shame-ridden emotional fallout.

"The humiliation and embarrassment that's attached to being conned, particularly if you're a smart, intelligent woman, which a lot of these victims are, is horrible," Benita Alexander, an award-winning documentary TV producer who now uses her story of having been scammed to help others, tells Yahoo Life. "That's what really pushed me to just keep talking about this. The prevalence of victim-shaming is a huge problem."

That often occurs, Alexander says, when victims finally work up the gumption to report such a crime, only to find that it's "taken less seriously" by authorities.

"The fraud perpetuated through emotional intimacy can be far more destructive than other types of crimes," she adds. "I've talked to so many women that have walked into police departments and tried to report their crimes, and they just get waved off. They get dismissed. 'Oh, it's just a relationship gone bad. We can't do anything with that, sorry but can't help you. That attitude is pervasive and is part of the problem."

Alexander, who shared her story with ABC's 20/20 last year, was conned out of nearly $50,000 by Paolo Macchiarini, an Italian surgeon she met online in 2013.

Once believed to be a pioneer in organ transplantation, Macchiarini was exposed as a con artist, and in 2019, an Italian court sentenced him to 16 months in prison for abuse of office and forging documents. He’s since been released, and Alexander continues to share her story, hoping to stop him and those like him from doing further harm.

Also important, says Alan Castel, a psychology professor at UCLA who studies online scams, is to "know that you're not alone," he tells Yahoo Life. "These scammers are working on large numbers. They're now able to reach millions of people within minutes."

He adds, "Regardless of age, race, ethnicity, there's not one risk factor that makes you kind of susceptible or immune to scams."

Crypto investments, rent money needs and other scammer techniques

More than a third of people who claimed to have lost money due to romance scams said it began on Facebook or Instagram, notes the FTC report. A growing trend is when scammers lure victims into bogus investments, especially those involving cryptocurrency.

Last year alone, $139 million was lost to romance scammers through cryptocurrency — nearly five times higher than what was reported in 2020.

In many of these cases, reports the FTC, people are led to believe their scammer is a successful investor who is casually offering investment advice. Before long, these so-called “investment opportunities” evolve into foreign exchange trading, ultimately leading a victim to lose money they’d intended to invest.

"On Tinder, I've had matches of people who tell me they want to give or teach me about crypto," Zach O'Connor, a digital editor living in New York City who has noticed a rise in such suspicious chats, tells Yahoo Life. "It seems to be the same conversation, where it seems normal at first, and then suddenly the signs show."

"They ask about crypto," he continues. "They say they want to meet to talk about crypto, they want to 'buy me crypto,' and then suddenly they are telling me I need to send them money."

Other forms of payment include gift cards — the most commonly used pay-off method in romance scams, the FTC notes, used by about one in four people and accounting for $36 million in losses last year.

In many of these cases, Castel, author of Better with Age: The Psychology of Successful Aging, explains, scammers target people who are emotionally vulnerable or convey a "sense of isolation" due to "recent challenges."

"We might respond in a way that we might not normally," he says of those cases. "That's what a lot of people will note after they've been scammed and they see what's happened. They're like, 'Wow, I just wasn't thinking clearly' or 'I'm surprised I did that.' We're not acting irrationally because we're being played by emotional cues."

Other scammers don't necessarily draw lump sums but are more gradual with their deception. According to a forthcoming 2022 Zelle survey, "Consumer Education, Money and Dating," 55 percent of romance victims said they knew their scammers "very well" or "well enough."

Both of those details factored into the case of Sara Grossman, a Denver communications professional who says she was conned out of "thousands of dollars" by a woman she met on Tinder after being convinced to pay for various needs — such as rent, daily expenses and urgent trips.

"We got really close really, really quickly," Grossman tells Yahoo Life. "She was mirroring a lot of what I would talk about — little white lies about things we had in common."

Grossman claims she was manipulated to believe that her scammer had a boyfriend who'd taken "advantage of her and took all her money," which Grossman later found out was a lie. The expenses grew.

"She would be back and forth between Denver and her parents' [in California]," Grossman says. "Every single time she went home, she did so without a return flight because her parents 'refused to pay for it' and I was stuck paying for them. She routinely missed flights back and then I'd have to pay for them, again. She also gaslit the s*** out of me and made me feel desperate."

Then one day, after the couple returned to Denver from a trip to New Orleans ("that I, of course, paid for," says Grossman), Grossman woke to find found the woman leaving for California. "I never heard from her again," she says.

Getting the word out — and learning to spot red flags

Reactions to The Tinder Swindler, Morris says, "has shown that people want to hear stories about victims and not just about perpetrators. There's a tradition, I think, in crime and in movies and so on, that we tell a story about the perpetrators," she says. "One lesson from this is: Don't undermine the people that you wronged, because Simon would never have expected these women to stand up in a way that they have."

Morris adds that a takeaway of the film is for people to have a heightened awareness rather than to go and delete their apps.

"How do you arm yourself against very sophisticated criminals at the end of the day, or people who don't necessarily care and feel in the same way as we do? It's incredibly difficult because most of us are born to trust," she says. "That's what human nature is, to trust people."

Today, Leviev is a free man. Though he's been banned from Tinder, some reports have insinuated he’s still an active user. He's also reportedly trying to make it in Hollywood — something that incenses people like Alexander.

"These con men are criminals," she says. "They are no different, in many ways, than a serial killer. They target their prey. They're very good at looking for someone who's vulnerable and is more susceptible to this type of crime."

It can help those most vulnerable, says Nev Schulman, romance-scam activist and host of MTV’s Catfish, to get the word out about how to spot red flags from the outset, which can be tricky.

"The tactics these scammers tend to use is really a long game," he tells Yahoo Life. "You tend to think of romance scams as people taking advantage of someone who might just be gullible, or sort of an easy target, but it's actually not the case."

Schulman advises anyone who feels like they're in a potential romance scam to be sure to talk to friends and family about the relationship.

"It gives you a bit of perspective," he says. "They can very easily spot red flags because they're not emotionally invested, and they're not feeling the same pressure you might be feeling to engage in this relationship and be supportive financially."

Schulman, who recently partnered with instant payment app Zelle in a series of PSAs for romance scams, says when it comes to protecting yourself, it's "less about what they're doing" and "more about what you're not doing."

Castel advises: "Don't rush and verify. If you don't recognize the number, don't answer. Don't be afraid to say, 'Can I call you back?' or 'Let me think about that,' or 'I'll call you back' and hang up. If it's really an important matter, they'll call you back. Right?"

"It's OK to say, 'Wait a second, before I send someone money, let me make sure they really are who they say they are," Schulman adds. "Spend $30 and run their phone number, or run their photos on this website called PimEyes," a facial recognition site.

Feeling a sense of urgency from someone for you to wire money, he adds, is another warning sign.

"There'll be an emergency situation that requires immediate attention, and often, some sort of financial involvement from you," he explains of a theoretical scenario. "If you don't help them right away, the situation will only worsen, so people feel a sense of responsibility and guilt to [pay]."

Whether you just got divorced, got out of a relationship, lost a job or had a death in your family, scammers, Alexander says, "have this innate ability to target vulnerable people and go after them." She advises, "have your guard up when you're vulnerable."

As traumatic as these scenarios can be, those who have been scammed say the best way to heal is by practicing self-forgiveness.

"It's human nature to look for kind of a good side or the positive. We want to trust people," says Castel. "If we're taken advantage of, we might feel a strong sense of negative emotion, embarrassment, feeling gullible, ashamed. And I think it's important to share these feelings with others." After all, he adds, "you might help the next person down the line."

Adds Alexander: "Stop trying to figure out why they did it, stop trying to analyze every single detail and rewind it all in your head. You're not going to get the answers because there is no rhyme or reason. Many [scammers] are sociopaths and they don't have empathy or remorse. They simply don't think the way we do. They are not built the same way we are."

Schulman, whose personal experience with catfishing is well documented, says looking at the big picture is important for moving forward.

"As hard and difficult and sad as it might be, having a 'failed' relationship still gets you closer to the next relationship. Right?" he says, noting that being catfished ultimately sent him on a path to finding his current wife, Laura Perlongo.

Also, says Alexander, who is still "a diehard romantic" and has processed her experience with a similar positivity, "My singular goal was to expose this very dangerous con man, and then I found myself on this path of helping other women. That is very rewarding, and in some weird, twisted way, it makes what happened to me make sense."

Finally: "Don't beat yourself up, because what was your crime? All you did was want to be loved. It is not a crime to want to be loved."

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