It is often assumed that the targets of a relationship scam are single or widowed retirees hoping to pursue a romantic relationship. While it is true that scammers are eager to take advantage of such older adults, the unfortunate reality is that those looking for love are not the only ones who could be potentially swindled by an online scam. Fraudsters can leverage any type of online connection, companionship, or friendship to take advantage of trusting individuals of any age.
Scammers do not limit their communications to dating websites, apps or social media when looking for potential targets in a companionship scam. Read about the red flags older adults can look for that may indicate a scammer is trying to gain their trust and sneak into their inner circle.
Social Media—Scammers may exploit available online personal details to create a phony profile that appears trustworthy and shares commonalities, such as snowbirding in the same city. Older adults should remember to examine friend requests closely and use caution when corresponding with someone they meet online. If an online “friend” is requesting money, it is likely a scam.
Internet Message Boards—Whether an older adult’s interests include fishing, embroidery or connecting with groups such as congregations, alumni associations or charitable organizations, there is sure to be an online community that shares their passion. Con artists are known to slip into these groups and build rapport to earn the trust of these friendly internet circles. Remember to be wary of anyone requesting monetary support claiming there’s been an emergency (a natural disaster, medical problem or a business crisis) and urgently needing money.
Home Health and Help—Background checks and carefully vetting potential employees to assist in the home is crucial, but it is important to keep safety a priority at the very beginning of the hiring process. No matter if it is a home nurse, physical therapist, housekeeper or other professional service, make sure the correspondence is with an expert, and not a scammer posing as one online. Older adults should ask people they know and trust for recommendations, rather than turning to social media groups or internet searches for advice. It is also wise to request to speak to previous clients or customers for references; Legitimate small businesses and industry professionals should be happy to provide this information.
Online Support Groups—During difficult times in life, it is common for an individual to join support groups to share their thoughts and seek guidance from people who have shared experiences. While support groups are immensely helpful, scammers may take advantage of these vulnerable parties by pretending to deal with the same struggles of these intimate online groups. Remember that just because someone has exchanged personal stories and experiences online, it does not mean they are being honest about their true identity. Scammers will manipulate emotions to get paid.
‘Falling for an online companionship scam can drain older adults emotionally as well as financially.’
Online Games and Apps—People are turning to virtual gaming worlds for escapism, and fraudsters seize this opportunity to take advantage of those trying to relax and unwind. Online card games, chess tournaments or word challenges that pair users with another online player is a great way to keep the mind and playing skills sharp, but it also gives scammers the chance to engage directly with unsuspecting targets. Encourage older adults to ignore unsolicited in-game chats and block messages from any user that they do not personally know.
Ways to Identify Being Targeted for a Companionship Scam
Falling for an online companionship scam can drain older adults emotionally as well as financially. These tips may help indicate how to recognize a conversation with a scammer.
Requesting Money—Asking for money is the largest red flag of a potential scam. One of the most common cases involves an online “friend” requesting money to help with expenses for their children, recent bills or other financial and seemingly temporary hardships. Scammers will often begin with a bashful and sincere-sounding plea for a small amount of money to gauge how receptive their target is to the request. Then as they gain trust, they will slowly begin requesting larger sums. Be sure to avoid situations where someone is asking for a money transfer, prepaid card or gift card to a third party or business.
Fast Friendships—A scammer could easily mirror an older adult’s likes and interests with the goal of forming a quick bond and establishing a natural sense of trust. Remind others to be careful of who they confide in, and to conduct their own research on the people they are corresponding with. If something feels off, it could indicate a scam.
Communication and Conversations—Proceed with caution if someone is quick to move a conversation from a website, message board or app to another channel. If the progression of the friendship seems to be moving unnaturally quickly, it could indicate a scam. Scammers will claim deep feelings of kinship shortly after meeting. Their goal is to progress the friendship as quickly as possible, with as many victims as possible.
Protection from the Online Companionship Scam
Scammers have a knack for taking advantage of intelligent, well-meaning people. If an older adult you know has sent money via Western Union and you suspect that they have been scammed, report it immediately by visiting WU.com/fraudawareness.
April Payne is a senior analyst, social media, at Western Union in Denver, Colo.