SAN ANTONIO — In 2018, more than $143 million was taken from people across the U.S. in what law enforcement calls "romance" or "sweetheart" scams.
According to the Federal Trade Commission, romance scams are the most damaging type of consumer fraud, often bilking the elderly out of their life savings.
"You can be reached out and touched by fraudsters from all corners of the world," said supervisory U.S. Secret Service agent Tracy Steed. "You don't have to be scammed by somebody that lives in the same neighborhood. You could be scammed by somebody in Russia, Nigeria. I mean, in any part of the world."
Steed said as technology improves, so to do the tactics which fraudsters use to get money out of people.
"In this age now, a lot of people (start) romantic relationships online, you know, the Match.com and these various dating sites, plus Facebook and other social media platforms," he said. "They're looking for these people who are lonely."
According to the FTC, the average loss from a romance scam is approximately $2,600. But for individuals 70 and older, the average loss skyrockets to $10,000.
Steed said, in one local case, an elderly man who had recently lost his wife simply changed his Facebook status to "widowed," prompting unusual requests from profiles purporting to be women romantically interested in him.
"He sent his life savings over a course of time to this person," Steed said.
The person on the other side of the screen turned out to be from Nigeria. Luckily, in that case, officials were able to seize some of the money and return it to the elderly man.
"There's a lot of lonely people out there, and they're one click away from, you know, meeting what they think is the love of their life," Steed said.
"You never hear from the person again."
USAA Federal Savings Bank is just one of many financial institutions getting involved in the fight against romance scams.
Stacey Nash, the vice president of Enterprise Fraud Management at USAA said while romance scams may be thought of as a rare crime, they're becoming more and more prevalent. Nash said she believes it's due in large part to the fact that it's become commonplace to meet someone online.
"You establish a relationship with this person and you think that you're falling in love," she explained. "And in many cases it actually transpires over months. These criminals are patient, so they'll build a relationship, they'll build trust and then typically what happens is, right before you're about to actually get together or live happily ever after, they'll typically ask for money of some sort."
Nash said the fraudsters can be cunning.
"They'll come up with a million reasons why they need this money. A lot of the time, it's so that they can get to you, or they can tie up loose ends where they are," Nash said of the bogus reasons scammers may give. "They'll come up with a million stories and they'll play on your vulnerability and the fact that you believe that you're actually going to be with this person forever. And then what happens is, when you send the money or give the money, you never hear from the person again."
Steed said his agency has found that some terrorist organizations like Boko Haram use romance scams to fund their operations.
While arrests in romance scams are few and far between, Steed said the goal is to disrupt scammers' financing. The Secret Service's asset forfeiture team in San Antonio is really good at doing that. In 2019, the team was recognized by the Department of Homeland Security for leading the country in the amount of assets seized and returned to fraud victims.
However, Steed said he's seen elderly people in financial ruin over romance scams. Both Steed and Nash agree the likelihood of a positive outcome increases when victims come forward sooner, but some victims don't want to come forward.
"They're so embarrassed," Steed said. "They don't tell you the truth to start off with, so you ask them, 'Well, have you ever met this person?' ‘Oh, yeah, I’ve met them.' 'How many times?' 'A couple of times.' Once you get into the weeds on that, nine times out of 10 they say, 'I've never met anybody.' They've just been talking to them online.”
Nash said while financial institutions work to stop financial crimes before they happen, it starts with educating loved ones about the schemes that are out there.
"The one thing I would ask people is, if you know there's people in your family or even on your street, your neighbor, that probably might be a little bit more vulnerable, look out for them," Nash said. "Make sure they know about this."