CINCINNATI — Online lonely-hearts scams cost Ohioans over $3.5 million in 2020, and local FBI agents believe they’re becoming more common as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.
“Romance fraud” often begins on legitimate dating sites, according to the FBI. The scammer builds an emotional relationship with the victim over time without ever meeting them in person, using excuses such as traveling for work or being in COVID-19 quarantine to explain why they cannot see each other.
When the victim is convinced their relationship is real, the scammer begins asking for money. Like other types of scammers, the romance fraudster is likely to ask for money via wire transfers, prepaid debit and gift cards or cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin.
“Organized crime groups, especially those located in Africa, have capitalized on the pandemic and the emergence of cryptocurrency to quickly move funds acquired from the victims out of the United States,” a local FBI spokesperson wrote in a news release warning Ohioans about the scam.
Another type of romance scammer may instead send money to the victim but ask them to move it through newly opened bank accounts or use it to purchase prepaid debit cards and cryptocurrency.
In these cases, the victim is unwittingly being recruited to launder money obtained through fraud.
The FBI recommends people forming relationships online during the pandemic:
- Be cautious.
- Never send money or information to anyone you have only communicated with online or through texts.
- Go slow, ask a lot of questions and be suspicious if your match repeatedly cancels plans to meet in person or via video chat.