TAMPA, Fla. — One of the top streaming shows on Netflix, Tinder Swindler, is bringing a lot of attention to a growing problem across the world: romance scams.
The Better Business Bureau and FBI are warning all of us that scammers are using the pandemic to con a record number of Americans out of money.
Florida is one of the top states for romance scams and one Orlando woman is opening up about her story in the hopes of helping more people spot a scam and avoid it. She nearly lost everything after falling in love with someone she met on a dating site.
Rebecca D’Antonio figured when she joined the dating site that she would be a wing woman for her friend who just launched into the online dating world and she didn’t think much would come of it.
“Then Matthew came into the picture. He seemed ideal in a lot of ways,” she explained.
D’Antonio had put a lot of information into her profile, hoping to weed out any non-candidates. She included details like she enjoys children but for medical purposes wasn’t able to have them. She now believes some of those details may have made it easier for “Matthew” to know what to say to woo her.
“Matthew” said he was originally from Australia and worked in oil. He was a single dad to a boy named “Evan.”
Over the course of a full year, the two connected on every subject you can imagine. “Philosophy, politics. We went all over the map. We even talked about the things considered taboo,” she added.
D’Antonio said they talked for hours through messages and phone calls.
D’Antonio even played games online with who she thought was Matthew’s 5-year-old son.
So, when her love interest told her he was traveling internationally for work with his son and his credit card stopped working, D’Antonio pictured that little boy.
“His appeal was am I going to leave this child in a bad situation?” she explained.
Over time, she loaned him thousands of dollars and even took out credit cards to help Matthew.
“That one year bought him, or them, $100,000 of my money,” she added.
D’Antonio ended up claiming bankruptcy. She said if it weren’t for the help of her dearest friend, who she considers to be like a sister, she isn’t sure where she would be now.
“She said you know this wasn’t your fault right? And that was something I genuinely didn’t know that,” she said.
As more people turn to online dating, scammers are getting more sophisticated.
In 2020, scammers conned love-struck Americans out of $304 million dollars. That’s more than $100 million dollars more than pre-pandemic in 2019, and experts believe the actual amount is much higher.
David McClellan of socialcatfish.com said their independent studies show only 1 in 3 people who are scammed out of money online actually report it. “People feel dumb, they’re embarrassed, and they don’t want their family and other people to know and so there is significantly more people getting scammed and they’re just not reporting it,” McClellan added.
Experts say scammers are now using the pandemic as a reason they can’t meet in person or why they might need money.
Here are some red flags: The person may want to quickly move outside of a dating website to chat, they use poor grammar, they claim they can’t video chat because of poor WIFI and might use terms like Queen or Sweetheart instead of your real name. The number one thing: they ask for money…even it’s years later.
“If someone is trying to coerce you to give them money by whatever means, walk away. Love yourself enough to walk away because no relationship is worth that,” D’Antonio added.
One of the biggest romance scam trends is social media influencers having fake accounts made in their likeness. A survey from socialcatish.com found 112 out of 130 social media influencers (86% of them) have had their identities stolen during the pandemic.
2021 numbers haven’t been released federally. Yet, numbers from the FBI show in 2020, 1,603 Floridians told the FBI they lost $40 million in a romance or confidence scam. In Hillsborough County, 51 people reported they lost $778,000. In Pinellas County, 29 people reported $624,000 in losses.
Romance scammers are especially skilled at adapting to the situation at hand and then working in the vulnerabilities of the person they are speaking with. COVID-19 has become a big part of their narrative.
“Now they’re using COVID," said David McClellan, president of the California-based socialcatfish.com, a business that verifies online identities and finds people. “We’re hearing that a lot."
To read more on socialcatfish.com's study, click here.