Although their methods vary, all romance scammers start by trying to win your trust, often through flattery and storytelling.
"They're very persuasive. They're very believable," said Rhonda Perkins, an attorney in the FTC's division of marketing practices. In particular, she said, scammers excel at finding ways to bond with their victims through shared experiences or interests.
"If you're religious, they're religious. If you love pets, they love pets. If you've just been through a devastating loss, they've just been through a devastating loss. They're really good at building those connections," Perkins said. "They're perceptive. They listen. Based on the things you're talking about, they pick up on those cues. They use that to echo back to consumers similar interests."
Once the hook is set, the scammers then set about parting you from your money.
Chelsea King at romancescams.org described it this way: "The scams start with small requests to test the water. It could be anything from a paycheck that didn't come to a Social Security check that was lost in the mail. The scammer will ask to borrow money from a victim with the promise of paying it back. If the victim agrees, the scammers know they have the green light to proceed."
The asks may seem logical enough — your suitor says she needs money to pay the dating app's membership fees and stay in touch, or he wants to buy a plane ticket to come see you. Or the rationale might be something extraordinary and heart-rending — a health emergency, say, or a family tragedy.
Scammers typically ask for gift cards or non-bank wire transfers (think Western Union). No matter what the amount or the type of payment requested, the FTC advises: "Never send money or gifts to someone you haven't met in person — even if they send you money first."
A more insidious scam seeks to dupe a person into laundering money. According to the FBI, the scammer will ask the person he or she is cozying up to online to help them with a task that involves accepting some funds, then transferring them to a third person. What the "money mule" in the middle doesn't realize is that the funds are the proceeds of a crime, and the transfer is designed to stop the cops from tracing it back to its source. Worse, if the scheme is uncovered, the money mule can be prosecuted even if he or she had no idea that a crime was being committed.
The Crime Junkie podcast highlighted one other wrinkle this year. Multiple women across the country reported having gone to a bar to meet a man they'd recently connected with online, only to be stood up after being instructed to order two shots of a distinctive liquor — and then having another strange man swoop in and try to get them to leave with him. Where this would have gone is anybody's guess, but an FBI agent interviewed on the podcast suggested the women could have been targeted for human trafficking.