World Romance Scam Prevention Day Promotes Dating and Romance Scam Awareness
Dating and romance scams are more common – and more insidious – than most people realize. Networks of organized criminals are perpetrating them professionally and systematically every day. Some scammers are willing to invest significant time to win over their targets. And the results can be devastating emotionally, psychologically, and financially. World Romance Scam Prevention Day, on October 3rd, is an opportunity for you to make a difference and reduce the impact of these scams.
See World Romance Scam Prevention Day, October 3rd, with Kathy Waters and Bryan Denny for a complete transcript of the Easy Prey podcast episode.
Kathy Waters is an an operations coordinator for a well-known hospital by day and an advocate against romance scams outside of that. In both jobs, she is an advocate for different things. She loves advocating for people and being a voice for victims. Along with retired Army Colonel Bryan Denny, she founded a nonprofit organization advocating against romance scams.
Bryan Denny spent twenty-six years in the U.S. Army. Now that he’s retired, he works as a defense consultant and an advocate against romance scams. He’s helping find justice for those used, abused, and taken advantage of in the scam process and educating people that dating and romance scams exist and they are being perpetrated across the world every day.
Together, they founded a nonprofit organization advocating against romance scams. And they are the organizers of World Romance Scam Prevention Day on October 3rd.
An Unpleasant Introduction into Dating and Romance Scams
Kathy and Bryan have shared their story in more detail before. You can read the full story in their article about military romance scams. But here’s the short version:
Bryan became interested in romance scams the old-fashioned way – as a victim, but not in the way you think. As he was getting ready to leave the army, he started improving his social media presence to search for another opportunity. Someone reached out on LinkedIn, and he accepted the request, thinking it might be a job reference. He was astonished to find this woman claiming to have been in a relationship with him for weeks. She had just sent “him” money to fly to see her from where he was stationed to Syria.
When he explained he’d never spoken to her before and it wasn’t him, she sent him a lot of photos. They were all pulled from the internet. She also sent him an image of plane tickets doctored to look like they were in his name. She suggested he go on Facebook and look up his name. He did, and there were dozens of Bryan Denny profiles. They all had the same spelling of his name and the same photos of him. But they were all scams.
Kathy became interested in dating and romance scams through a different victim’s experience. Her mother’s friend was being scammed by a man in military uniform. Kathy saw the name on the uniform in the pictures didn’t match the name her mother’s friend was given, so she tracked down the real person in the image: Bryan Denny. Bryan had been dealing with the epidemic of fake Bryans for six months, but neither knew the extent of the issue yet.
The Fake Bryan Problem Continues
Bryan’s photos are still being used for dating and romance scams to this day. If you go on Facebook and search for “Bryan Denny,” they’ll pop up. The harder ones use his images but different names. For those, you need a reverse image search to show the truth.
Kathy and Bryan are still finding and reporting the accounts. But there’s not a lot of progress there. Some have been taken down, but scammers just put them back up. They don’t know the criteria for which come down and which don’t, but Facebook only takes down about a third of the ones they report.
There’s an array of people using Bryan’s photos. Some are definitely organized cybercrime groups. But Bryan suspects many are also just individuals trying to make a quick buck. Ultimately, this will continue as long as the story and photos are profitable for the scammers.
The Losses of Dating and Romance Scams
The only up-to-date number we have for the losses to dating and romance scams is through the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3). For romance scams alone, they report over $700 million lost in the United States alone. But they don’t include pig butchering in those numbers. Pig butchering is type of dating and romance scam that adds elements from investment scams to steal even larger amounts of money. If you total the two together, the losses in the U.S. alone are over $3 billion.
People know that more needs to be done – more education, more awareness.Kathy Waters
Pig butchering has a provocative name and the losses can be huge. It’s not uncommon for a victim of a romance scam to lose thousands of dollars. But pig butchering victims often lose hundreds of thousands, or even millions. These massive losses and the scam’s gory name are bringing more attention to the issues.
Myths and Misconceptions about Dating and Romance Scams
Even though we are seeing more attention on dating and romance scams, and more victims are coming forward and sharing their story, there are still a lot of misconceptions about romance scams, how they work, and who becomes a victim. These are some of the myths and misconceptions Bryan and Kathy run into often.
Myth #1: Only Stupid People Fall For It
When people hear about a romance scam, they often think, “Who could really fall for this?” There’s a tendency to assume the only people who get caught in these scams are too stupid or uneducated to see the obvious trick. But this is both untrue and actively harmful, because it blames the victim for the actions of a criminal.
I don’t believe your job, social standing, your status, or the highest degree held really relates to romance scams.Bryan Denny
Bryan and Kathy see men and women from all walks of life and educational backgrounds get taken in by dating and romance scams. The one thing they have in common isn’t ignorance or stupidity – it’s emotional vulnerability. They’ve often lost someone close to them, such as a spouse, or are lonely or stressed. It’s very dependent on circumstances and having that vulnerability. Someone who could have spotted the scam a mile off a month ago might get caught in it today because something happened to make them emotionally vulnerable.
Myth #2: It Only Happens to Old People
When we hear stories about dating and romance scams, the victim is often an elderly widow or widower. But it isn’t just older people who can get caught in romance scams. These scammers will target anyone at any age. People of all ages can be vulnerable, and scammers will prey on that.
One variant of scam especially targets younger people, including teenagers and, in some cases, children. This variant is sextortion. The scammer builds a relationship with their victim and convinces them to send the scammer explicit photos. Once they have those photos, they use them for blackmail. There are even a few reports of teenagers committing suicide because they got caught in a sextortion scam.
The embarrassment [of romance scams] happens at any age, and so does manipulation and blackmail.Kathy Waters
Myth #3: Dating Scams Only Happen on Dating Platforms
Most people assume that dating and romance scams only happen on dating sites. They assume that if they’re not on Tinder, Bumble, eHarmony, or any other dating app or site, they’re safe. But that’s just not true. Scammers will reach out to you on any platform to try to make a connection. Facebook, Threads, Snapchat, even less likely channels like online games – romance scams can happen anywhere there’s a messaging function.
Every platform can be a conduit [for romance scams].Bryan Denny
Any site or app can be used to set the hook. But once they have you hooked, they’ll quickly move you to an encrypted messaging app. There’s probably several reasons for that. It can help protect the scammer’s fake account from getting reported and banned. If some of the conversation took place where your friends could see it, taking it to a different platform keeps your friends from noticing and warning you that it’s a scam. And by choosing an encrypted app, it’s harder for law enforcement to get their data and track them down.
Myth #4: Scammers Immediately Ask for Thousands of Dollars
Very few romance scams involve someone you just started talking to a few days ago asking for a large sum of money. Some scammers are willing to invest months or even years in building a relationship. But when exploring the world of dating and romance scams, Kathy and Bryan were surprised at how quickly scammers claimed they needed money. But the amounts to start with were never large.
A common story from scammers pretending to be Bryan involved a son. They claimed to be a widower serving overseas with a son at boarding school in the states. They would work hard to build up a relationship with the victim. Then they would claim that their son had been in an accident at boarding school and needed a few hundred dollars for medicine. “Bryan” couldn’t help because he was overseas – could the victim send the money to help his child?
That small amount is a test, one of many they may do. And the amount could be as small as a $50 gift card. They are trying to see what the victim can do for them. Do they have money to send, and will they send it? If they don’t have money, will they send an explicit picture that can be used to extort them? Will they provide bank account information that can be used to launder money, maybe without their knowledge? Will they give away personal information that could be used to access their accounts or steal their identity? Scammers are primarily after money. But they are very skilled at turning a profit from whatever you will give them.
Combating Stigma and Shame
The best thing we can do to combat the stigma and shame of dating and romance scams is education, More people involved in the mental health community should come forward and provide education and information. The people who become victims are at a vulnerable point in their lives. A few weeks, or even a few days, prior they may have been able to see the situation differently.
A lot of people think that victims hand over the money, and that’s simply not the case at all. It’s emotional and psychological abuse and manipulation.Kathy Waters
It’s also important to understand the severity of the blackmailing involved in these scams. Bryan and Kathy call it “mental hijacking.” If people understood that, a lot of the stigma would go away. The majority of people would likely be able to find some compassion for victims.
If you have friends or relatives going through a difficult time in their life, make sure you are there for them. Having an emotional connection can help reduce their vulnerability. Also have conversations with your loved ones so they know about dating and romance scams, how they work, and who they target. Talk about it on a personal level and let your loved ones know to be on guard and aware of who they’re talking to online.
Helping a Loved One Who is Talking to a Scammer
After an earthquake or other natural disaster, we know to be skeptical of people coming to our doors and claiming to be contractors. We know to check their credentials and do our due diligence. But when a loved one has gone through an emotional or psychological disaster and someone comes into their messages offering companionship and a listening ear, we often don’t want to cross lines or step on their toes.
People wait to say something because they don’t want to step on toes, or they’re worried that they might be wrong and don’t want to sabotage a great new relationship for nothing. But then by the time they approach their loved one, the manipulation is so deep that it doesn’t do any good.
Unfortunately people wait to say something because they do feel like [they don’t want to interfere]. … By the time they approach their loved one, the manipulation is so deep that they don’t believe them.Kathy Waters
On their website, Bryan and Kathy have a blog series about how family and friends can help victims. Ultimately, never turn your back on them. It’s okay to step back if you need to, but don’t close the door. They’re going to need someone once the scam is revealed. The last thing you want is for them to feel alone.
World Romance Scam Prevention Day, October 3rd
Kathy and Bryan’s advocacy group just launched World Romance Scam Prevention Day. They started looking into it at the end of 2022, and there is an application to put in to make it an official day. Their application was approved, and so October 3rd, 2023 will be the first one. There has been a great response so far. Bryan and Kathy have made a lot of connections in their seven years of advocating, and so far World Romance Scam Prevention Day is being sponsored by AARP, Match Group, Electronic Caregiver, and over thirty other organizations and anti-scam groups.
How to Get Involved
The World Romance Scam Protection Day website, protectingheartsday.com, has a lot of resources that you can save and share however you want. They also have logos that you can put on your own social media profiles that show you support the day.
On October 3rd, they are hosting a dating and romance scam education webinar. Speakers include a pig butchering victim, someone from Match Group, a therapist who hosts a support group for romance scam victims who will talk about the manipulation and its effects, and someone from the FBI talking about where to report and the reporting process. A lot of people are discouraged when they don’t hear back from the FBI in a certain time. But it can be a year or two before the FBI approaches victims about their reports.
They are trying to focus on categories that aren’t talked about very much. We hear a lot about red flags and tips. But we don’t hear as much about law enforcement, tech companies, and support and recovery after the scam. Kathy and Bryan hope as many people as possible can join the webinar on October 3rd.
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