As online romance scams rise, banks ask for help to save victims billions

The banking industry is seeking help from the federal government and the social media industry to stop an escalating crisis that’s costing Americans billions of dollars every year: online romance scams.

These digital crimes have proliferated since the pandemic, as criminals pose as attractive partners and reach out to lonely Americans on social media.

“We really need help,” Paul Benda, the executive vice president for risk, fraud and cybersecurity at the American Bankers Association, said in an interview with CNBC. “We need the social media companies to shut down these people that are putting these out there. We need law enforcement engaged to try and prosecute some of these folks. Unless you put a bad guy behind bars, that guy is gonna keep doing what he’s doing.”

Experts estimate that known instances of fraud amount to billions of dollars every year. Factoring in that many victims don’t report their losses to anyone, the overall losses could be in the tens of billions of dollars annually, they say.

The romance scams are run by organized criminal gangs, often based in Southeast Asia, that set up phony social media avatars and use those to connect to potential American victims. Their targets are male and female, old and young, highly educated and not, according to experts.

The common theme is loneliness and a willingness to engage online. Once a victim responds to the message, avatar operators launch into a lengthy campaign — often hours of texting each day — designed to persuade the victim that they have fallen in love with a real person. The psychological power of the relationship can take hold surprisingly quickly.

“Some people get hooked in within a matter of weeks,” Benda said. “It’s that really burning brightness of a relationship where the texts go on constantly, all day and all night and they get hooked into that.”

Once that psychological hook is set, the scammer turns the conversations to money. In some cases, they present the victim with a sure-fire-seeming investment opportunity, or they prey on the victim’s empathy and solicit money for an expensive but phony medical procedure.

“Some of the scams I’ve heard of, they literally have people draining their bank accounts, to send the scammer everything that they have,” Benda said. “They want to do anything for the person they love … And these are just evil people taking advantage of vulnerable people.”

The experts CNBC spoke with said social media companies should do more to throttle this kind of outreach over their platforms and do a better job of taking down the big perpetrators.

They also saw the value in regulatory changes that would allow financial institutions to talk to one other about customers who are at risk. Some victims may be draining a savings account with one institution to send funds to a fraudster, while the institution that services their 401(k) retirement account remains unaware.

Scammers will often coach the victim on how to access and transfer funds. And Benda noted banks are in a difficult position, even when they suspect their customer is in the process of being defrauded.

“We’re legally obligated to provide you access to your funds, full stop. So we can’t stop you from withdrawing from your bank account. Not even if we think that … it’s going to destroy your life,” he said.

The experience can be an emotional one even for the bank employees who watch the scam play out.

“We’ve heard stories where we know a bank teller that was sobbing … talking with a longtime customer, begging them not to do this type of thing, and in the end, no, we have to give them access to their funds,” Benda said.

Banks generally will not reimburse a customer for romance scam losses, Benda explained, because the customer transferred the money of their own free will. And reimbursing victims would likely just make a market that would draw in more scammers.

Erin West, deputy district attorney in Santa Clara County, California, estimated that between $30 billion and $50 billion was lost to romance scams in 2022.

“That’s an astonishing number. It’s huge,” she said, adding the caveat that arriving at an estimate can involve some guesswork since victims can be reluctant to report the details of their own financial humiliation.

But West, who is part of a national group of prosecutors trying to shed light on the problem, said the scale of the emotional wreckage may be even worse. Discovery of these scams can lead to lost marriages, lost careers or a permanent change in financial position.

“I’ve been in law enforcement for 25 years, and I’ve done sex crimes and I’ve done homicide, and I’ve never heard the depths of despair that you get when someone realizes that the life they thought they’d had is completely gone,” she said. “On one day, to lose a marriage and every last cent that they have, is traumatic for people.”

West explained there’s a very human reason why lonely people fall for these scams.

“This kind of crime goes to the very core of what we want in life. We want to feel loved,” she said. “And we want to have a person to come home to, even if it’s by text, who loves us, understands us, and is thinking of us. And they provide exactly that.”

“And then they provide a dream that not only can you be loved, but you can be financially comfortable beyond your wildest dreams,” West said. “It’s easy to call it lust and greed, but what it really is, is it’s comfort on both levels.”

— CNBC’s Bria Cousins contributed to this report.