Online dating and romance scams: How to spot and avoid them

Published by on December 21, 2017 in Information Security

Finding love online is becoming more and more commonplace. In fact, you probably know at least one couple who met online. However, the rise in popularity of online dating has resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of romance scams taking place.

Dating and romance scams are nothing new, but with so many people looking for love online, they have become that much more attractive and accessible to online criminals. Plus, the countless real online love stories only serve to make this scam even easier for criminals to pull off.

Most people hope they wouldn’t be naïve enough to fall for such scams. But, as the old saying goes, “love is blind,” and thousands of people fall victim to such plots every day. Of all internet crimes in the US, romance scams account for the largest financial losses, totaling $230 million (~ GBP £172 million) in 2016. And it’s definitely not just happening in the US. Last year in the UK, there were almost 4,000 victims of romance fraud scammed out of close to GBP £40 million (~ $54 million). In Canada last year, 750 victims lost CAD $17 million (~ GBP £10 million).

Victims are often too embarrassed to come forward, so these numbers may be grossly underreported. Many realize that it’s usually impossible to recover any of the money sent to scammers. However, there is some good news. By educating yourself and those around you about the tactics online fraudsters use, you can drastically decrease the chances that you or they will become a victim.

In this post, we’ll describe the common tactics used by scammers, what to look out for, and how to avoid getting caught up in the scam.

The common scam pattern

Although the details vary, most online dating and romance scams follow a similar pattern. It begins with a hook. The would-be suitor makes contact and uses something in common to spark a friendship or romantic relationship. The relationship ramps up quickly with scammers typically sending lots of messages throughout the day over a period of weeks or even months.

According to FBI Special Agent, Christine Benning, the majority of victims are women over 50. She explains that ideal targets might be those who are recently divorced or widowed. They are looking for love and may believe they don’t have a great chance of finding a partner. As such, they become vulnerable and are more likely to fall for these scams. It’s also possible that that women in this age group tend to be more affluent and less tech savvy than younger demographics.

Once they are sufficiently ‘groomed,’ the victim is tested. An initial test might involve sending a small amount of money. This could be for a child’s birthday present, to help an elderly relative, or to get a car fixed.

At some point, the victim may be asked to send something to the scammer that can later be used against them, such as compromising photos or videos. Sometimes the message history is enough to use as a threat, especially if the victim is married or in a long-term relationship and is hiding this online relationship from their significant other.

Eventually, they are asked to send large amounts of money or to carry out something illegal. They may do this willingly out of love or compassion for the scammer. Or they may do it because at this point they are being threatened. In a surprising number of cases, the scams continue for prolonged periods for the simple fact that the victim is too embarrassed to admit to friends, family, and law enforcement that they have fallen prey to a scammer.

Even more surprising, in some cases, victims know that they are being scammed but are still in love with the scammer and continue to send money anyway. This goes to show two things: the manipulative power these criminals hold and the vulnerability of the victims they target.

Common warning signs to look for

Although the common perception is that you’d have to be really stupid to fall for one of these cons, that’s often not the case. Scammers are very clever and prey on vulnerable people. On the other side, people are looking for love or friendship, and with real online love stories becoming more and more common, it doesn’t seem so far-fetched that it could happen to them.

Even so, there are often tell-tale signs that a potential love prospect is not being up front. Here are some of the signs to look out for:

Creating trusted profiles

Online dating scams typically involve someone creating a fake profile, be it on a dating site or a social media platform. This is often known as ‘catfishing.’ Military personnel, aid workers, and medical professionals are common guises, as people are more likely to trust people in these professions. Many will claim to be from a Western country but currently working overseas.

Scammers will often create multiple profiles using the same stolen images. American hypnotherapist, Dr. Steve G Jones has had his identity stolen for this purpose multiple times. Scammers use his videos and images to create fake online profiles. Some also use his real name and personal information. He has even been contacted by victims who believe they’re in a relationship with him. His images have been used so many times, he decided to create a PSA to let everyone know and warn them of the dangers of befriending strangers on social media.

Scamalytics scans many of the most popular dating websites to find out what the most common scam profiles consist of. A typical male profile would be in his late forties, be a widower, and have a high-paid job. A typical female would also be well-paid, but be in her late twenties and never married.

If you’re suspicious, you can run images through Google image search or TinEye to see if they appear elsewhere. You can check on sites like Romance Scam  and Scamdigger to view frequently used profile images and names. Additionally, certain Facebook groups dedicated to raising awareness flag scam profiles. Some people suggest trying to arrange a meeting as early as possible, although this seems risky. A better option might be to try to arrange a video call early on and see how they react. Many will say their camera doesn’t work, which could be legitimate excuse, but it’s worth asking.

Poor English can be a good indicator that someone is not who they say are, especially if they’re purporting to be from a Western country and/or university educated. If you’re unsure about location information, you could test someone on knowledge of the local area they claim to be from.

Scammers often work in groups posing as a single person. Changes in things like tone, grammar, and use of emoticons can be a tell-tale sign you’re talking to more than one person. Inconsistencies and repetition are also more likely to occur when you’re talking to a group.

Hooking you with common interests

Whether it’s your religion, line of work, or hobbies, scammers will often select information from your profile to help strike up a conversation. It doesn’t take long before you’re divulging more information that they can use to further the relationship. In fact, many times they will adjust their ‘personality’ to fit the perfect partner that you’ve been searching for.

Romance scamming is such a big business that people even profit off of writing scripts for criminals to follow. One UK woman was jailed for two years for writing such scripts. Not all scammers will bother paying for original content and things like poetry and romantic verses can easily be lifted from the internet. If it sounds too good to be true, pop it into Google search and you’ll likely find something the same or similar elsewhere.

When it comes to online public profiles, you should be very cautious about the pieces of information you divulge. Of course, this can be impossible for online dating sites when you’re actually trying to spark a relationship, but you can still keep things to a minimum.

Quickly becoming overly emotional

For people conducting these scams, this is often their full-time job. Some scammers are running dozens of ‘cases’ at a time. Of course, they don’t want to waste their time. They usually ramp up a relationship quickly so they can get to the point where they’re actually profiting from it sooner rather than later. A British Columbia man was in an online relationship for just six weeks before he started handing over money to his suitor. Ultimately, he sent around CAD $500,000 (~ GBP £290,000) before realizing he had been had.

It’s common for fraudsters to shower victims with love and affection, talking to or messaging them constantly throughout the day. This can be referred to as “love bombing,” which is often used to describe the type of behavior exhibited by cults and religious sects. One romance scam victim described the feeling as similar to being brainwashed.

If they’re using a dating site to find victims, perpetrators will usually ask to move to a more private chat forum. Dating sites often monitor for suspect activity, so if you meet someone on such a site, it’s better to keep the conversation there.

Asking for money

This can start out very innocently. A few bucks here and there could seem like nothing when you’re in love with someone. But it can quickly ramp up. A common request for money can involve the scammer coming to visit the victim. They might say they need money for flights or other expenses. Other large sums might be requested for investing in a business or for medical costs. The urgency of these demands tends to ramp up and can even become threatening.

One common request is to send money for fees with the pretense that the victim will be compensated with additional (often huge) sums of money. One woman was duped into sending CAD $450,000 (~ GBP £260,000) in this manner. She believed she was set to receive a sum many times higher than that in compensation from the Nigerian court system. Instead she was “defrauded of her life savings and possessions.”

There is some good news in that companies like Western Union are being held accountable for helping scammers. As such, they are becoming more strict about the transfers they allow to go through. Of course, there are always other ways to transfer money. The bottom line is you should never send money or banking details to anyone you don’t know well and completely trust.

Asking to carry out suspicious activities

For most people alarm bells would ring if someone asked them to take money or goods and pass them onto someone else they didn’t know. But this stuff happens all the time during online dating scams.

Of course, if someone asked you to take their sealed luggage on a flight, you’ll likely say no. You never know what’s in there and it could get you into a lot of trouble. Similarly, you should never receive or sends goods or money on behalf of someone else.

Sharon Armstrong learned about this type of scam the hard way. She agreed to transport a “contract” from Argentina to London on behalf of her faux-boyfriend. Unfortunately, she ended up spending two and a half years in an Argentinian prison for cocaine smuggling.

Making broken promises

Whether the fraudster has promised to visit the victim or pay them back some money, there is always some excuse. These can be elaborate to the point where they may seem believable. What’s more, these excuses often become a gateway to ask for even more money.

One common scenario involves the victim believing the scammer is coming to visit them. They’re so excited and might have told friends and family that their boyfriend or girlfriend is due to arrive. Then something comes up and the scammer needs money for a passport or a ticket or to tie up some loose ends. While pinning their hopes on a real-life meeting, the victim keeps doling out money, even though the excuses become more and more far-fetched.

Introducing you to others

Online dating scams are often run by highly organized crime rings. Sometimes this just means you’ll be in contact with multiple people posing as one person. However, for more elaborate cons, victims may be introduced to other ‘characters,’ including people posing as relatives, business partners, lawyers, bank managers, travel agents, and more.

Report scammers

Hopefully you’ll realize that you — or your friend or relative — are being scammed before it’s too late. If so, you should report the scammer to whichever platform you met them on. You can also report the incident to your local police (especially if you have handed over any money or performed any requested tasks) and to the fraud centre in your country of residence:

Although you might be embarrassed, it’s important to talk to friends and relatives about these situations. They can offer support and help you get out before things go further. Additionally, when someone they know has experienced an online dating scam, they’re likely to be far more cautious themselves.

Woman date” by Rachel Scott licensed under CC BY 2.0

4 thoughts on “Online dating and romance scams: How to spot and avoid them

  • I’ve had a few suspect ‘matches’ on dating sites, never handed any money over as I got aware before that happened. One time I chatted to a guy for 3+ weeks, every day. Whole time my fur screamed scammer but I carried on in case I was wrong. He then asked me to buy a £100 iTunes gift card, scam, I told him I couldn’t til I was paid, never heard from him again. I was glad I’d wasted so many weeks of his life and he ended up with a big fat zero!!!!

  • I have a friend that I think is being scammed , it just started but seems suspect to me. He claims he’s a fighter pilot and stationed in Serbia . .I call B.S.

  • Never a better article. Almost happened to me.. Never again!!!! Got me moved off dating site to Skype quickly. Next thing you know he stranded somewhere and needs my help. Thankfully I blocked him immediately and reported him.

    Beware ladies. They are just that good.

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