HOUSTON - Valentine's Day is around the corner, which means it's peak season for romance scams.
The FBI says 24,000 victims lost $1 billion to romance scams last year.
Online dating investigation site Social Catfish says complaints of romance scams tripled during the pandemic. Scammers seized on people feeling isolated, not only hurting the victims but people whose pictures they stole to do it.
"I’ll get phone calls almost every single day from women who are being scammed by my pictures, and they think it’s me," said Corey Harmon.
"I’ve gotten gifts to my roofing business because I posted my business card online. Shouldn’t have done that. I’ve gotten love notes sprayed in perfume," Harmon told us.
Corey Harmon says he discovered scammers lifted his pictures off military websites to scam women on dating sites.
"I have empathy for the women who do get scammed because it’s an emotionally abusive relationship. It's not fun," Harmon said.
He says victims tell him they have lost thousands.
"I’ve seen one lady, she sent $5000. One sent $3000. It’s interesting because the way these scammers do it, they tend to prey on people that are a little more vulnerable," explained Harmon.
"It’s not uncommon in a month, where we meet somebody that is close to being homeless, or is homeless, or someone who should have been retired, but now is working for the rest of their lives," said David McClellan with SocialCatfish.
McClellan says scammers post stolen photos on dating sites and social media profiles to contact victims. They tell victims they're working overseas or in the military and can't meet in person. McClellan says a romance of digital messages can go on for years. Then one day, the scammer asks for money.
"They’ll lead you on, Oh, my phone broke. I can’t talk to you anymore and try to get you to offer to give them something. Or they’ll say my friend is going to send you money. If you can get that forwarded to me," explained McClellan.
Harmon says he can't stop the proliferation of his pictures, so he's speaking out to warn others.
"I’m human, it would bother me. And it dwells on you," he said.
Here are the red flags for romance scams:
- The scammer won't video chat or meet in personThey confess love quicklyThey use poor grammar or spellingThey ask for money
If you suspect an online relationship is a scam, don't give them money and stop all contact immediately. File a complaint with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center at www.ic3.gov, whether you have lost money or not.