By Grace Benninghoff/VTDigger
Romance scams are spreading, and the Vermont attorney general’s office of consumer assistance has issued a series of videos and other resources to help Vermonters avoid the widespread and particularly devastating tactic.
Here’s how it works: A scammer creates a fake online identity — it could be on a dating website, social media platforms or even on a game app like Words With Friends.
Over time, the scammer gains the trust of the target victim. Sometimes that happens in weeks or months, but other times it can go on for years. Once the relationship is established, the scammer claims they’ve run into financial trouble and need help. They often ask for a Visa gift card, access to a bank account or a wire transfer.
“We’ve seen entire savings lost,” said Charity Clarke, chief of staff for the Vermont attorney general’s office. “Honestly, it’s heart-wrenching.”
In 2020, Vermonters filed 5,021 scam reports, including business scams, grandparent scams and more. Romance scams were the fifth-most-reported scam in the state.
Romance scams fall under the larger umbrella of “impostor scams,” which are extremely common. The scammer pretends to be someone else — maybe a romantic interest, a grandchild or a religious leader. Particularly common is the “grandparent scam,” in which scammers call in the middle of the night, claiming to be a grandchild in trouble, asking the grandparents to wire them a large sum of money immediately.
In 2020, Vermonters reported losing $349,166 — “and that’s just the people who reported the scams,” Clarke said.
The scams are designed to be difficult to track.
“We know scammers are hard to locate. Very rarely are they in Vermont,” Clarke said. “So, they’re hard to shut down.”
She advises Vermonters to protect themselves against scams by taking precautions. Running a reverse image search, having a video chat or consulting with close friends about new online relationships are all good places to start. Above all, Clarke said, “Never send money to someone you haven’t met in person.”
As for romance scams specifically, Clarke stresses that “gift cards are for gifts. Nobody legitimate would ever ask to be paid in a gift card. They’d ask for Venmo or a check or something.”
She also recommends reporting scam attempts to the consumer assistance program, even by people who do not fall for them.
“It’s helpful for us to know the landscape of scams,” she said.