When the victim finally wises up – or runs out of money – the scammer disappears.
In a few cases, the scam continues even after the victim catches on.
Some of them are career criminals, but many are college students with low incomes looking for extra cash.
In Nigeria, many of these fraudsters – known as “Yahoo boys” after the Internet portal Yahoo – have grown very rich, buying multiple houses, fancy cars, and expensive jewelry with the proceeds of their crimes.
Britain’s Telegraph newspaper reported in 2016 on a woman who was sentenced to two years in prison for writing scripts for romance scams, including one in which the scammer claimed to be a widow whose husband was killed in the 9/11 attacks. Often they’ll start out by asking for a small amount, such as a few extra dollars for a child’s birthday present.
Once they know the victim is hooked, they pretend to go through some kind of crisis that requires a large amount of cash to fix, such as a robbery, a medical or legal problem, a frozen bank account, or a business opportunity.
According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), online romance or confidence scams are a fast-growing type of Internet crime.
More than 14,500 Americans fell victim to this kind of scam in 2016, up from fewer than 6,000 in 2014.
Sometimes, they use fake names and stock photos; in other cases, they steal real people’s names, images, and personal information.
Online romance scams are a form of “catfishing” scam, in which a person creates a fake online identify.
Some catfishers use these fake identities to annoy or harass others online, or just to flirt without commitment. They lure their victims into an online relationship and use it to get money out of them – sometimes thousands of dollars.
Many romance scammers operate outside the United States.
According to Huff Post, most of them are located in Ghana and Nigeria, but an increasing number originate in communities of West African immigrants in Canada, Malaysia, and Britain.