Research out of the UK today says that perhaps as many as 200,00 people have been victims of online romance scams and the same study says over 1 million people personally know someone who has been scammed by one of these heartless fraudsters.
The online research was conducted by the UK's University of Leicester found that 52% of people surveyed online had heard of the online romance scam when it was explained to them, and that one in every 50 online adults know someone personally who had fallen victim to it.
The results confirm the law enforcement belief that this type of crime is often not reported by those affected, in many cases due to embarrassment at having been duped, or through a continuing hope that there will eventually be a genuine romance, the study found.
According to the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Centre (IC3), scammers use poetry, flowers and other gifts to reel in victims, the entire time declaring their "undying love." These criminals also use stories of severe life circumstances, tragedies, deaths in the family, injuries to themselves or other hardships to keep their victims concerned and involved in their schemes.
Scammers also ask victims to send money to help overcome a financial situation they claim to be experiencing. These are all lies intended to take money from unsuspecting victims, the IC3 says.
The romance scam is particularly cruel in that perpetrators spend long periods of time grooming their victims, working out their vulnerabilities and when the time is right to ask for money.
"It is our view that the trauma caused by this scam is worse than any other, because of the 'double hit' experienced by the victims - loss of monies and a 'romantic relationship'. It may well be that the shame and upset experienced by the victims deters them from reporting the crime. We thus believe new methods of reporting the crime are needed," said the authors of the study, Professor Monica Whitty, a psychologist and professor of contemporary media at the University of Leicester, and Dr. Tom Buchanan, a psychologist at the University of Westminster.
According to the UK's Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) romance fraud is organised crime, usually operating from outside the UK. Criminal groups make initial contact with potential victims through online dating sites and social networking sites, and will try to move the 'relationship' away from monitored online space before defrauding people of what can amount to large sums of money, the researchers said.
In some cases, even when victims cannot, or will not, send money, scammers involve them instead in money laundering by asking them to accept money into their bank accounts.
Romance fraud is by no means a problem only in the UK. It is routinely listed by the FBI as one of the most popular scams. In fact the marriage of Britain's Prince William in April caused the FBI to issue a romance scam alert in the US, because the scammers came out of the woodwork.
Scammers search chat rooms, dating sites and social networking sites looking for victims. The principal group of victims is over 40 years old and divorced, widowed, elderly or disabled, but all demographics are at risk, the IC3 stated. IC3 complainants most often report Nigeria, Ghana, England and Canada as the location of the many scammers.
An Army Times newspaper story detailed the growing trend of fraudsters stealing the identities of US Army soldiers from social network sites and then using that information to set up false profiles on Internet dating sites. The profiles are used to dupe prospective dates out of their money. But there are other consequences too.
From the Army Times: "The unwitting soldiers are sometimes victims when their loved ones discover the online profiles and believe their soldiers are looking to cheat. [Master Sgt. C.J. Grisham] said the scam is a new twist on the so-called Nigerian 419 advance fee scam, and its popularity is growing, fuelled by soldiers' routine use of social networking sites and the Internet's penetration into Third World havens for con men."
"In the past year, the traffic on my site related to the scams I write about has tripled," Grisham said. 'I'll get 30 to 40 comments a day and 20 emails a day asking me to look into whether or not they're being scammed.'"