Romance Scams: A Billion-dollar Industry

By Elvis Huff on March 1, 2018
8 minute read

Valentine’s day may have already passed, but romance scams are still trendy. Cybercriminals and groups are turning up the heat on their victims.

What is romance scam? Romance scams are plain old fashioned extortion fraud with a new twist – criminals entice their victims with hopes of a relationship, be it romantic or friendship. Either way, these scams are big business for criminals. According to a Better Business Bureau (BBB) study released in February, victims in North America have reported losing over $1 billion during the past three years. That’s a lot of money for the cybercriminals to rake in, doing nothing more than befriending victims online

The victim sends money to the person they have come to know.

I know what you’re thinking. “This won’t happen to me, I am not going to send money to people I do not know.” Most people think they can avoid it, but many still end up becoming victims. How? The victim does not send money to someone they do not know. The victim sends money to the person they have come to know. The victim has trust in their online friend or partner. Read on to see how these criminals extort us for so much money.

The Romance Scam flow – from friend, possibly love, to loss.

Low and Slow
Cybercriminals are low and slow at this, often working in groups, and they’re all over the world. The criminal does not become your friend and then immediately ask for your money. No one would send them money that way. Instead, the criminals are deliberate, using a ‘low and slow’ approach.

The process begins with the criminal creating a fake online persona, using images and information from other people’s social profiles. Once the profile is created, the criminal innocently casts out hooks – sending friend requests. Then another friend request is sent; and another. Eventually, the criminal has a whole network of “friends” that are not actual acquaintances. Neither are the targets, of course.

Many of these friend requests are blindly accepted by the victim, just because so many of his or her friends “know” the person too.

Building a relationship
Over the course of time, the criminal groups use this fake profile to their advantage. The cybercriminal begins talking with their new friends and liking their posts, videos, comments, etc. All the while the criminal groups are getting to know their network of new friends. Inevitably, through human interaction, a stronger relationship is built with a few people. Unfortunately, the victims in these cases are communicating with someone who does not physically exist.

Once the relationship is established, the communication continues, often for months. One case I was recently involved in spanned years before the victim actually sent money out. These types of fraud cases do not occur quickly. The criminals are very intentional about taking their time.

Throughout this process, the victim becomes more and more open with their friend, revealing information that is often used against them by the criminal. The more the victim reveals, the more ammunition the cybercriminal can store away, to bring up later for reference and relationship strengthening.

The victim trusts that their friend cares for them, and the criminal trusts that the victim is ripe for exploitation.

Now that the relationship has been established, time has allowed for each party to get to know the other better. The soon-to-be-victim feels that they can tell their “friend” anything, while the cybercriminal is just about ready to exploit the victim. In short, both sides have developed trust for the other. The victim trusts that their friend cares for them, and the criminal trusts that the victim is ripe for exploitation.

The question
The criminal will indeed ask the question, but it does not involve marriage or commitment. Instead, it involves only money, and will the victim help out their “friend” (read: fake profile). Summarizing this activity can make it seem overly simple, but it’s more complex than you think. The victim has been led to believe a complex story. This story has been crafted by the criminal from the beginning, back when the relationship was being forged. The victim, believing this story, is now willing to help out by any means necessary.

The transfer, and transfer, and transfer.
The victim has agreed to send the money needed for whatever the criminal (fake profile) needs it for. The victim has, or obtains, the funds to send to the criminal. It is not uncommon for the victim to go and borrow the money to give to their friend (criminal). The money transfer occurs through various mediums, again and again. Once the criminal knows they can exploit the victim, the requests will continue, again and again, until the victim finally says no or runs out of money. The criminal will stop at nothing to get every last penny the victim has.

What can you do?
The FBI published a great article detailing these romance scams, which included these tips:

  • Research the person’s photo and profile using online searches to see if the material has been used elsewhere.
  • Go slow and ask lots of questions.
  • Beware if the individual seems too perfect or quickly asks you to leave a dating service or Facebook to go “offline.”
  • Beware if the individual attempts to isolate you from friends and family, or requests inappropriate photos or financial information that could later be used to extort you.
  • Beware if the individual promises to meet in person but then always comes up with an excuse why he or she can’t. If you haven’t met the person after a few months, for whatever reason, you have good reason to be suspicious.
  • Never send money to anyone you don’t know personally.
  • If you are a victim, stop all contact immediately and contact the FBI’S Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3)

In addition to these great tips, I would also add:

  • Talk to your friends and family about this growing threat. Tell them about the dangers of friending people online that they don’t physically know.
  • Remind yourself that this can happen to anyone – not just the elderly or retirees. I have worked cases involving all demographics.
  • Know that cybercriminals are getting clever on playing on our emotions. Do not let them get your information.
  • Listen to your friends and relatives when they talk about their recent activities. You may just prevent another victim simply by listening.

Have another thought, tip or suggestion? Leave it in the comments below. I would love to hear from you!

Posted by Elvis Huff

Elvis Huff worked as an officer and network administrator for 12 years with the Lebanon Police Department and has also served as an adjunct professor in information systems at Cumberland University. Read More »


  1. Elvis,
    You might not remember me but I spoke to you last year concerning my wife getting $10,000.00 from our joint account and then laundering the money and sending it to so called “KeithUrban”
    Well we convinced her this was a scammer, but she then hooked up with the real Keith Urban, NOT and she started sending him money a little at a time until I just caught her again. We have contacted Keith’s people to let them know of the Imposter, we got his Messenger account cut off which was “keithurban7558” private account and they are researching into the problem further. After all of this, my wife wants a divorce which I am obliging her with, this is pure mental illness with her, just like cancer. I am opening up another account this afternoon just in my name to keep her from stealing our money for our bills, what a shame!

    Larry Page


    1. Larry,

      I am sorry to hear that. If you need anything my way, please reach out!


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