Online dating is the number one way in which people enter into romantic relationships. Countless dating sites are devoted to people seeking love. People using the sites to find romance claim it’s a convenient way to meet someone, particularly if you live in a rural area. However, it can also mean making yourself a target for scammers. The act of posting a fake dating profile is known as “catfishing.” The reports of catfishing on dating websites has increased tenfold in recent years. Romance scam artists use dating sites and popular apps such as Plenty of Fish, Tinder, Match.com, OK Cupid, and more. “Sugardaddies” or “sugarbabies” perpetuate scams even more blatantly than on regular dating sites. More recently, scammers have been using more traditional social media sites to scam people. Examples include Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram.
Romance scammers are savvy when it comes to tricking their targets into sending money to line their pockets. Some ask for money right away while others work up to it, starting with iTunes or gift cards, eventually asking for credit card or bank account information. Scam artists try almost anything to get personal information or financial information. They take money from people or commit identity theft. Regardless of the method, it always comes down to money.
Victims of online dating scams suffer embarrassment when they’re duped, but it doesn’t mean they’re foolish or stupid. Scammers know what to say and when to say it to pull on a person’s heartstrings. Many will talk on the phone or text to develop an online relationship with a promise for a future together. Some promise to “meet” on Skype or FaceTime. Others make wedding plans with the scam victim. Romance scams always end the same way – the scammer takes the money and runs. The thief leaves the scam victim poorer and often heartbroken.
People often think that victims of romance scams are desperate lonely hearts. The truth is that targets come from all walks of life. Reports show that millennials, seniors, professionals and celebrities fall victim to scams. Primary targets for romance scams include:
Women. Women fall victim to romance scams more often than men. Scammers target divorcees and widows most often. Con artists play upon the woman’s feelings of loneliness.
Abuse Victims. Abuse victims experience poor treatment they think of as normal. Living in denial, often for years, allows them to ignore red flags from scammers. Victims believe the romance could be real and go along instead of questioning strange behavior.
Professionals. Successful professionals portray intelligence, savvy, and worldliness. They make smart decisions to get ahead in the business world. However, they fail to make the same wise decisions in personal relationships.
Crisis Survivors. Survivors of tragic experiences look for comfort and security. Crises include losing a job, divorce, death of a loved one, medical troubles, etc. Scams target people who aren’t thinking clearly or those who have mental instability due to trauma.
Victims of Previous Scams. Romance scammers also like to prey on people who have been victimized before. You might think that being scammed once would make people more cautious in the future, but often, their response is just the opposite. The University of Exeter study found that people who have fallen for one scam are consistently more likely to show interest in another. It concluded that up to 20% of the U.K. population is naturally vulnerable to scams.
Residents of Developed Countries. Scammers prey on people around the world. They believe that residents of developed countries have more money than those in less developed regions. Romance scammers target areas like the U.S., Britain, China, Brazil, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.
Secondary victims include people who are completely unaware a scam has taken place. Scammers steal names, faces, and identities of people to scam others. Dr. S. from Charlotte, NC began to receive strange phone calls and texts from women on dating sites. Dr. S. was a happily married man with a thriving medical practice. A woman reached out to him, telling him that she had seen his photo and name on several dating sites. She knew it was a scam and wanted to warn him. Dr. S. was stunned and immediately investigated. The scammer had published his full name, phone number, location, and profession. Dr. S. was able to get the information removed from the sites immediately. He was one of the lucky ones.
The FBI reports that Americans claimed losses of more than $230 million in 2016. Totals do not reflect scams that went unreported. Victims suffer from shame, embarrassment, and the fear that others will discover the story. Scammers cause additional problems for victims above and beyond financial distress. Look out for the following schemes:
Facilitating Crimes. Scammers convince victims to help them commit other crimes, with or without foreknowledge. Crimes include laundering money, receiving stolen goods, and transporting drugs.
Mental Health Problems. Romance scams cause mental problems in many victims. Victims develop severe depression, anxiety and similar mental health disorders after being scammed. Some claim that being robbed of a love relationship is worse than any financial loss. Lack of understanding and support from family and friends only worsened the condition. Others refuse to believe the relationship was a scam and continue to believe the scammer. HuffPost reports that many scam victims attempt or commit suicide.
Blackmail. Con artists resort to blackmail if victims won’t play the game. They use compromising photos and videos to threaten the target. Some scammers threaten to call the person’s boss or post sensitive information online. Victims shouldn’t expect scammers to keep their word even if they do comply.
Physical Danger. A target travels overseas to meet a soulmate. Once the victim arrives s/he is stranded in a foreign country with the potential to be kidnapped or murdered.
Ongoing Target. Victims suffer when they succumb to romance scams. Scammers use the victim’s information to create another scam or sell the information to other con artists or black market groups. Surprisingly, the victim is likely to fall for another scam, romance or otherwise, more than once.
Spotting an Online Romance Scam
Scammers give telltale signs that they are not legit. Some fake profiles are obvious, while others are cleverer in giving out as little information as possible. Red flags include:
- He insists that you leave the site and talk in person, text or email. Once you leave the site, his dating profile changes or disappears.
- The scammer rarely uses the target’s name. Instead, he uses terms of endearment like “honey,” “sweetie,” or “baby.” A common opening to a scam email to a woman is “Hello pretty.”
- The scammer has a hard time keeping personal details straight. It is common for a con artist to forget where he lives, i.e., the site says San Francisco but he says Miami. In some cases, the scammer forgets his own name or profession.
- Written messages use poor English with misspelled words and strange language, e.g., “I will love meeting you and having our life as one.”
- Messaging or texting in the middle of the night.
- The fraudster sends pictures that are taken in a professional setting or look familiar.
- The thief tells a sob story about the death of a family member. Loved one or some other tragedy. Children suffer from tragedy and need a co-parent or guardian.
- Other warning signs include claiming love at first sight.
- The scammer says that while he lives in the United States, he is working in a foreign country. This also includes people portraying themselves as members of the military.
- There is always a crisis. He is in a car accident, there is a family medical emergency, a bank or credit card has been hacked, or his phone has been broken. The crisis always requires money to repair. Sometimes the amount is small but increases with time.
- Meetings never take place. The person promises to meet in real life but it never happens. The excuses seem legitimate in the beginning but occur with regularity. The excuses become outlandish or unbelievable.
- The fraudster’s passport is being held in a foreign country and he must pay to get it back. While there was a time the corrupt politicians were Nigerian, these scams are now worldwide.
- If the target refuses to send money, the scammer becomes persistent, desperate or threatening.
- Scammers send messages straight out of a romance novel. Sometimes they don’t relate to you or the things you’ve shared. If the message sounds as if it was written by someone else, copy and paste part of it into Google. You may find that the message is a quote or used on multiple sites. Scammers become lazy and predictable.
- The scammer claims to have a prestigious job like a doctor or lawyer. In some cases, the person can be searched online for verification. Common jobs that may not be able to be traced include civil engineer on a project overseas, military commander, bitcoin trader, import/export entrepreneur.
What to Do if You’re Suspicious
- Online daters should use a reverse image search on any photos received. Google, Tineye, and Social Catfish are some of the sites that will reveal scam artists by their photos. The reverse search will show if it’s a commonly used picture or one of a celebrity. An image search shows if the profile is being used on another social media site or other dating sites.
- Ask for identification.
- Run a reverse phone search on the scammer’s phone number. The search shows if the number is a VoIP phone number, legitimate, or registered to someone else.
- No matter how much the person begs or threatens, do not send gift cards, money in any form (e.g., Western Union, Moneygram, or wire transfer), or send/receive packages. The stories can be convincing but, in the end, the person will take the money and leave the site. If the identity is fraudulent, there is a slim chance the person will ever be identified or caught.
Scammers count on victims being too embarrassed to fight back. The FBI estimates 85 percent of online dating scams go unreported because the victims are too ashamed to come forward. Sadly, scammers avoid getting caught most of the time. Con artists use technology to cover their tracks.
Victims can take steps to fight back. For example:
Call the financial institution. Scammers request untraceable funds. However, if the victim used a bank or credit card, the financial institution could stop or credit the victim for the monies lost. Fraud prevention services help people reclaim money taken from accounts. Untraceable funds include MoneyGram, gift cards, and pre-paid cards.
Report the scam to law enforcement immediately. Report scams using the United States Postal Service as mail fraud. Victims of online dating scams should also make a report to the state Attorney General as well as the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center.
Seek Counseling. Experts encourage victims to seek financial and psychological counseling. Financial counselors teach people how to recover from financial loss. Psychological counseling gives victims the tools to recover from the deception and heartbreak involved in a failed romance. Additionally, counselors listen without judgment and the repercussions that victims experience from family and friends.
Fight Back. New websites advocating for romance victims appear almost daily on the internet. Sites like Romancescam.com and Romancescams.org help victims fight back with support groups, information, alerts, and tools to research potential scammers.
Romance scams occur every day all around the world. A person seeking a relationship online must take precautions and move forward with extreme care to prevent becoming a victim.