Alls fair in Love and Romance Scams

In 2014, 81-year-old Glenda thought she had met the love of her life. The problem? Their entire relationship was virtual. The individual on the other end of Glenda’s computer sold her a fictional narrative that he was a United States citizen working in Nigeria. Glenda and this man developed their virtual “relationship”, never meeting in person. After some time, this man would ask Glenda for money to help his business and to get back to the United States. Glenda, wanting to help her love, immediately sent over the money. The requests became more frequent.  When the small money transfers weren’t enough, he asked her to open personal and business bank accounts to transfer funds between the United States and overseas.

Despite numerous warnings from the FBI, local police, and banks to stop, Glenda still believed the man she met online loved her and needed help. She continued illegally transferring money overseas for the next 5 years and would eventually plead guilty to two federal felonies. Glenda was a victim of a Romance Scam and paid the ultimate price.

Unfortunately, Glenda’s situation, while extreme, is far from a rare occurrence today. In 2021 alone, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) saw consumers report $547 million in losses due to romance scams, a concerning 80% more than those reported in 2020. In total, the FTC has seen an astronomical $1.3 billion in cumulative romance scam losses reported in the last five years. And these are just the scams that were reported to the FTC. Many victims go without reporting due to the shame and stigma that comes with falling prey to an online scam.

Romance scams often referred to as “sweetheart scams” occur when an individual (or group of individuals) fabricates an online persona and targets vulnerable persons for money.

These scammers build a fake relationship with the victim through messages and build empathy and trust over a short amount of time. After the relationship is built, the scammer suddenly succumbs to financial and/or medical hardships. Their initial request for money is typically a small amount and the victim may be repaid the first time to negate any doubts that this is a scam; after the second, third, and fourth request, the victim is likely never see their funds (or their “love”) again.

The elderly population is especially vulnerable to online scams.  Seniors tend to be more trusting than younger generations and usually have significant financial savings (own their home, retirement savings, government benefits). Also due to cognitive decline and unfamiliarity with technology, this group is left at a disadvantage to defend themselves or recognize when someone is feigning friendship versus a genuine connection. Even more so in recent years due to COVID-19, the elderly have become even more vulnerable. Many were forced into isolation and could only stay in contact with family and loved ones by getting internet devices, opening up a whole new world. Unmonitored access to the internet coupled with increased loneliness made elders the perfect target for romance scams.

Are dating sites liable for promoting fraudsters to unsuspecting victims? The short answer is no.

Under 47 USC Section 230, interactive computer service providers (a.k.a. social media and dating sites) are immune from liability for claims arising out of the content that third parties publish to their sites.

In 2022, the Federal Trade Commission’s claims against Match Group Inc. (owner and operator of, Tinder, PlentyofFish, OkCupid, Hinge, and several other dating sites) asserting that:

  1. misrepresented to consumers that profiles were interested in “establishing a dating relationship”, but on numerous instances, these profiles were set up by individuals with the intent to defraud; and
  2. Match “exposed to consumers to the risk of fraud” by allowing accounts that were reported or flagged for fraud and under review to still exchange communication with other subscribers.

The Texas Northern District Court dismissed both counts, holding that under Section 230, Match was entitled to immunity from a third party’s fraudulent content and actions. It seems that if a victim is looking for recovery, they won’t find it in the courts or through the dating sites themselves.

This looks like a job for the FBI…

Or maybe not.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation engages its Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), Recovery Asset Team (RAT) and Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) to recover monetary losses from internet scams. Unfortunately, the FBI typically takes on international cases of single transfers over $50,000 that fall within a 72-hour reporting window. Most romance scammers typically request money from elderly victims in smaller amounts over an extended period (the median loss for romance fraud victims in their 70s is $6,450).  Due to this high threshold and short reporting window, a majority of romance scam victims never report their losses or see their money again.

In reality…YOU Are Your Best Defense.


Do not send money to someone you have never met in person.


Check in on your loved ones who are living alone. They may be less inclined to turn to virtual relationships and send money if they have real-life connections.

Check with banks and financial institutions about regular check-in schedules for elderly clients or talk with your loved ones to help monitor their accounts if you notice they are in a cognitive decline.


If you or your loved one have been a victim of a romance scam, contact 1) your financial institution immediately; 2) report the fraud to the dating site to try and shut down the fraudster’s account; and 3) report the fraud to the Federal Trade Commission.

Five not so smart “smart phone” uses: How using your smart phone can lead to criminal conviction

Yes, your mother always told you “everyone is doing it” is not an excuse and nowhere is that this more true than with smart phone use. Just ask the hundreds of students in Canon City Colorado who could face child pornography charges for housing sexts on their phones. Or Owen Labrie, the high school student at St. Paul School convicted last month for luring an underage minor through the Internet.

Truth is, lots of smart phone activity that you may think is o.k. can actually lead you down a path that ends with you having to check the dreaded “yes” box when asked on a college or job application, “have you ever been convicted of a crime?”


Here are five not so smart “smart phone” uses and their legal consequences.


1.            Sending a sext to an underage friend can require you to register as a sex offender for the rest of your life.

Forwarding a picture of your nude or semi-nude self is child pornography, if, that is, you take the picture before you are eighteen years old.  And regardless of your age, receiving one of those pictures or forwarding them, is also child pornography and can lead to conviction, jail time and a requirement that you register as a sex offender.  Just Ask Phillip Alpert. The 18 year-old forwarded a nude selfie that his 16 year-old girlfriend had sent him. His decision resulted in 72 criminal charges and conviction as a registered sex offender.  Alpert, who by all accounts is a good kid who made a bad decision, is, for the next 25 years, prohibited from living near a school, working with children and using the internet freely.

2.            Catfishing can land you in jail.

Catfishing isn’t just a show on MTV. Catfishing, the practice of impersonating someone to lure another to fall in love, is a crime in some states. California, New York, Texas and Washington are among the states that have criminalized online impersonation. In fact, last year, a New Jersey teen created a fictitious Facebook profile and used it to entice a classmate into an online relationship. The teen, Andriy Mykhaylivsky, lead his classmate to believe that the fake girl had been kidnapped, prompting his duped “buddy” to call the U.S. Embassy and file a missing persons report. As a result of catfishing, Mykhaylivsky was convicted of making false statements to a U.S. official and sentenced to six months in jail and $500.00.


3. Consensual sex with an underage minor met through a dating app is statutory rape, even if the minor lied about her age in her profile.

Last year, Zach Anderson communicated with a young woman on who despite being 14 at the time, listed herself as 17 years old on her profile, and who, by all accounts, looked that age.    Hotornot prohibited 13-17 year olds from accessing the “adults only” sections of the website, so it was reasonable for Anderson to think the girl with whom he was communicating was really 17. After some online flirting the two met up and Anderson engaged in consensual sex with the girl.   Police subsequently arrested a cooperative Anderson and he was charged fourth-degree criminal sexual assault for which he pled guilty and spent 90 days in jail.  As Anderson learned, a misunderstanding as to the minor’s age is no defense to the crime, even if the minor is the one who caused the misunderstanding.  Anderson’s experience is becoming increasingly common, and some estimate that 25% of those convicted of engaging in sex with a minor have experienced a similar circumstance.


4.            Luring a minor over the internet is a crime, even if both parties are minors.

Although initially conceived to stop child predators, courts are using the crime of luring a minor over the internet to punish teenage contemporaries. The crime is defined as expressing interest over the internet to meet a person for sexual purposes. When Owen Labrie, a senior at St. Paul School prep school, sent a 15 year old girl a “senior salute” — a spring semester tradition in which a senior boy sends a younger girl an email to solicit a romantic encounter, he was charged with the and convicted of the crime.    In other words, texting someone under 17 about a hook-up could result in a jail sentence.



5.            Posting on Anonymous Apps is not really anonymous

Since its inception in 2013, police on several colleges and universities have arrested Yik Yakers for posting threating comments on the app.  Last week, police arrested Connor Stottlemyre, a 19 year old  student at Northwest Missouri State for posting a terrorist message in response to the racial unrest at the University of Missouri.   A 21 year old Virginia Tech student pled guilty to harassment by computer after using Yik Yak to post “Another 4.16 moment is going to happen tomorrow. Just a warning,” a reference to the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech.  In both instances the police were able to access the IP address of the poster and through that information, track him down.  Although Yik Yak is anonymous it maintains a private log of the IP addresses along with the user’s GPS coordinates and the time and place of posting.  If police present Yik Yak, or any other app with a legally valid search warrant, the app is required to turn the information over for investigation, an investigation which often leads to arrest.


Best to use smart phones smartly

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