Signs of an online “sweetheart scam”

Romance crime is on the rise. Over 25,000 people reported a sweetheart scam to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in 2019, a threefold increase since 2016. Individuals age 65 and older were the hardest hit, with a median loss of $9465 (across all ages, the median loss was $2500 per individual). If your loved one has been taken advantage of, they are not alone! Romance scams are the second most common crime reported to the FBI.

The key red flags

  • The individual’s profile seems too good to be true. They dodge phone or video chats.
  • The relationship moves very quickly, with professions of love, even talk of marriage.
  • They live far away, and something always keeps them from visiting in person.
  • They ask for money. Maybe a phone card at first, then for help with an urgent problem.
  • They are particular about how the money is sent. They want wire transfers and gift cards. This provides them quick cash; plus, they remain anonymous.

If you suspect a scam
Be careful how you bring this up with your loved one. They have fond feelings for this person and will feel foolish, and hurt, if it turns out to be a sham. Be empathetic and help them save face. “Gosh, Mom, this guy sounds great. I’m curious to know more about him.” Then:

  • Start by sharing the signs of a scam.
  • Talk about how frequently this is happening. “I want to be extra careful for you.”
  • Reverse look up the photo of their sweetheart. (Go to and drag the photo to the window.) If it appears in many other places, likely it’s a false identity.
  • Suggest your loved one call the confidential Fraud Fighter Line at AARP: 800-646-2283 toll-free. They may need to leave a voice mail, but when they receive a call back, they can share their story and see if it’s similar to others reported to AARP.
  • Encourage them to help the authorities combat this crime. They can report it to the FTC ( and to the social media or dating platform. The shift to protecting others can be empowering. It gives them a positive way to channel their anger and hurt.
  • Help them block all future contact with the fraudster.

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