Romance Scams Are At An All-Time High. So Why Do Women Fall For Them?

The infamous “Nigerian prince” emails may seem like a funny, dated meme, but more women now than ever before are having their bank accounts drained by romance scammers.

By Andrea Mew4 min read
shutterstock 1706462992 (1)

Remember the 2022 Netflix documentary The Tinder Swindler? Israeli-born Shimon Hayut, known to many women on Tinder as Simon Leviev, posed as the son of “the Diamond King” Lev Leviev while operating a robust Ponzi scheme. He used charm, gifts, and exclusive travel opportunities to woo women before turning around and manipulating them into financing his extravagant lifestyle. All that worldwide swindling allegedly earned him $10 million.

One of the victims, Cecilie Fjellhøy, asserted that Simon first lured her into meeting in person with a private jet trip, asked her to move into a luxury apartment with him, and eventually asked if he could use her credit card to pay for his lifestyle after “attacks” from “enemies”. She obliged. After her Platinum AmEx was maxed out, he persuaded her to take out a $25,000 cash loan…which he then spent at a nightclub. Through their entire “relationship,” Simon racked up a $200,000 tab of debt left on Cecilie’s doorstep.

Romance Scams Break Your Heart and Your Bank Account

Women (and men) fall for catfishing and romance scams at unfortunately high rates. While not every case is as serious as the crimes of a serial scammer like the Tinder Swindler, romance scams contribute to one of the highest financial tolls related to digital crime.

In 2015, the FBI reported over $230 million in financial losses from 12,500 victims (an average of $18,400 per person), but in recent times, things have gotten much worse. That number jumped to $605 million from 23,000 victims in 2020 (an average of about $26,300 per person). The Internet Crime Complaint Center recently affirmed that online scams have risen dramatically after pandemic lockdowns shifted many people’s social lives online.

The FBI defines these types of scams as scenarios where perpetrators deceive victims into believing that they’re partaking in a trusting relationship. Due to that belief, “the victim is persuaded to send money, send personal or financial information, send items of value to the perpetrator, or launder money on behalf of the perpetrator.” 

The FBI reported over $605 million in financial losses from 23,000 victims in 2020.

When these relationships are family-related or friend-related, they’re called confidence scams, but when they revolve around romantic companionship, they’re called romance scams. Victims of romance scams tend to be older, but with three-quarters of younger adults using dating apps like Tinder to find love, it’s clearly an appropriate moment to warn about the possibility of romance scams. So what leads innocent women into falling prey to these fake, predatory relationships at higher rates than men?

Romantic Love Is Intoxicating and Desirable

Hear me out: Women fall for romance scams for many of the same reasons they love romantic fiction. When romance novelist Katie Fforde explained the obsessive quality of romance novels, she noted what a pleasing fantasy it could be for a woman to be swept up by a powerful man and taken away from her reality.

“I’d say most women know the difference between these and their real lives, and I don’t think they think they’ll marry a millionaire. They know the difference between fantasy and reality,” she shared with literature specialist Helen Taylor in Literary Hub.

Taylor explains that the escapist mentality that satisfies readers of romance novels is equated with “secretive indulgence,” as if the reader is “left in a permanent state of foreplay.” While this comparison might seem absurd, it’s worth keeping in mind when asking why women fall for romance scams.

Many romance scammers tease at whirlwind relationships straight out of a storybook. They charm with pet names like “darling” or “dear,” profess love early on in the conversation, and may even ask for your hand in marriage quickly to emotionally manipulate you.

Women fall for romance scams for many of the same reasons they love romantic fiction.

The media we consume has a big impact on our psyche. Relationship psychologists believe that romance novels not only give women idealized, unrealistic views of relationships, but they also perpetuate the destructive belief that feelings trump logic. Not all women make decisions solely based on their heart instead of their head, but for those who do, they may feel easily swept off their feet by a man promising love and companionship.

Romance schemes are like romantic fiction come to life. Instead of just living vicariously through a fictional heroine and falling deeper in love with an ideal life as you turn the pages, instead you actually get a shot at seduction. First, they lure you in under the guise of romantic feelings to earn your trust, sometimes taking months and other times taking much longer, and then use that trust to steal money for false reasons such as desperately needing to pay medical bills, other emergency expenses, travel expenses, or other debts they’ve incurred which they need to lose to start anew with you.

Losing Romantic Love Leaves a Gap in Your Life You Likely Yearn To Fill

A less philosophical reason, and arguably one of the most saddening causes, that women fall for romance scams is out of loneliness. As I mentioned before, victims tend to be part of older generations, many of whom have lost their husbands, are going through a divorce, have recently moved, or have just lost their job.

“I had no clue. I believed them. I wanted to get married again. This guy and I talk about the Lord back and forth, and we pray together,” shared one widowed Alabama victim, Dr. Bonnie Libhart, who was craving companionship two years after her husband’s sudden death. Three men whom she formed virtual relationships with collectively cost Dr. Libhart $430,000. 

In one very extreme scenario, a 70-year-old woman from Idaho fell for a romance scam on a dating app by a man claiming to be based in Nigeria, was kidnapped when she traveled to meet him, physically and mentally abused, and only fed beer and potatoes while being held captive. Once she was brought back home, she died from malnutrition.

But, younger generations taking an interest in cryptocurrency has perpetuated, and even worsened, the volume of romance scams. The FTC recently reported that one in every four dollars lost to scammers is through cryptocurrency, with romance scams being the second most reported scam behind investment scams. They believe it’s becoming a more attractive method of scamming because crypto transfers can’t be reversed, there’s no centralized authority for crypto that could flag or stop fraud, and there are still large populations of Americans who have no idea what crypto is or how it works.

Illusions of sophisticated, abundant wealth can be very attractive at first glance. One woman in South Carolina was encouraged to invest in crypto by a fake online fling and lost $350,000. Another woman in Tennessee met a man on Hinge who told her to create a account and then transfer funds using a separate link that really just funneled $390,000 of her money (and her father’s) into the imposter’s hands.

One in every four dollars lost to scammers is through cryptocurrency.

Unfortunately, many victims are left without any justice. The FBI has had some amount of success placing criminal charges or recovering money compared to the total financial loss, but many cases go to state attorney generals who have much less success finding justice. Attorney generals struggle to find justice because perpetrators are based overseas, but when these elaborate schemes are based in the United States, conspiracy is much easier to reveal.

Recently, a man actually working in the U.S. Justice Department laundered $1.9 million from over 20 victims, many of whom were elderly, by posing as multiple members of the U.S. Armed Forces facing tough financial circumstances. The criminal, Isodore Iwuagwu, is facing 20 years behind bars if convicted.

Not All Online Boyfriends Are Imposters, but You Should Take Precautions

Though there are many horror stories of women falling for elaborate online romance scams, it doesn’t mean that all relationships that begin online will turn sour and drain your life’s savings. If you feel comfortable on online dating websites or apps, here are a few top tips that the FBI suggests you follow to use your best discretion and avoid victimization.

First, be careful with the breadth of information you post about yourself online. Too many details can be used against you without you even realizing it. Then, take any potential relationships slowly. It’s worth using Google Images to reverse image search their photos and see if they’re stealing photos to create a false persona. You should also do as much social media vetting as possible, as digital paper trails from personal connections can help verify a person is legitimate.

Your top red flags? They profess love for you quickly, try to keep you from friends and family, claim to be physically located far away from you (and might claim they’re planning on visiting you but then cancel because of “an emergency”), send photos that look unrealistic, or ask you to either send them money or help them move money.

Closing Thoughts

Without a doubt, online dating already takes a major toll on women looking for genuine love. Reading through troubling tales of “Nigerian princes” genuinely swindling lonely, naive women out of their money could be a major deterrent from looking for love online, but if you elect to digitally date, spreading awareness and properly educating yourself on the tactics scammers use can keep you from becoming a victim.

Readers make our world go round. Make your voice heard in the official Evie reader survey.