With just a few swipes, the internet can give you access to a limitless dating pool. The bad news: The internet can also be the perfect breeding ground for romance scams, in which criminals create fake dating profiles to defraud vulnerable individuals. While being swept off their feet, some victims are unwittingly being swindled out of money. In 2018 alone, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reported online dating scams cost Americans $143 million. Besides the financial damage, there are emotions victims must contend with—shame, embarrassment and even depression—in the aftermath of being duped. But being aware of how romance scams work and vigilant about how to protect yourself can make all the difference in whether you become a target or walk away unscathed.
How romance scams work
Romance scams—also called online dating scams or love scams—start with a fraudster striking up a conversation and subsequent relationship with an unsuspecting person. While victims of romance scams tend to be middle-aged or older, anyone can be susceptible to fraud. Dating site scams are, in fact, on the rise, with the number of reports rising by 147% between 2015 and 2018.
The intent behind the relationship is to form an emotional bond with the victim so that person is willing to perform favors. Victims may be asked to send money for hotel stays, medical bills, travel documents or airfare, but in reality, the con artist uses the cash for personal gain. In 2018, the median reported loss per victim from romance scams was $2,600.
Internet dating scam victims may also become money mules if they deposit fraudulent funds or deliver packages containing drugs for their scammer. One female victim interviewed by the FBI met a man on a dating site. He tried to wire her $250,000, which he then asked her to transfer to other accounts. The practice of transferring money through multiple channels can be used by criminals to conceal their identity while moving cash around the world.
And just as the internet has connected people the world over, it has made online dating scams an international operation, according to Steve Baker, an international investigations specialist with the Better Business Bureau (BBB) and author of the study “How Scammers Use Impersonation, Blackmail, and Trickery to Steal from Unsuspecting Daters.”
Wayne May, founder of the online education and support group ScamSurvivors, said the type of romance scam often provides clues about the location of the scammer. For example, scammers from Russia and the Ukraine have been known to ask for money to pay for airline tickets or visa applications. Meanwhile, con artists from Nigeria often pose as businessmen and CEOs, and even set up fake banks or shipping companies to swindle victims out of money, according to May.
Rarely are these online Casanovas caught or prosecuted.“Most of the people doing this are not in the United States,” said Baker. “First you have to find the person, then you have extradite them to do time—and it doesn’t happen very often.”
Types of online dating scams
While the tactics may differ, there are several dating scam formats that follow a well-worn criminal playbook. “[Scammers] are profiling you without you even realizing it,” said Kari-Anne Liebling, a romance scam survivor who works alongside May at ScamSurvivors. Scammers do their homework over days, weeks or even months to figure out what type of scam you’ll respond to. These are among the popular schemes to look out for:
Military romance scams
Scammers pose as service members stationed abroad. After forming a relationship with their target, the scammer asks for funds to take care of expenses, such as travel, medical care or other needs. Liebling, who lives in Austria, thought she fell in love with an American soldier fighting in Iraq—until he began asking her for money to pay for his son’s medical bills. She traced his email address back to Ghana. And Liebling isn’t alone. The U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command (CID) receives hundreds of complaints a month from people who’ve been duped by scammers posing as U.S. soldiers.
Social media, dating site and gaming site scams
Romances that start on social media, dating or gaming sites may begin innocently enough, with two people “meeting” online, but a scammer may pose as a lovelorn widower or someone who is in a vulnerable position. They work to gain your trust and sympathy so they can start asking for money and other favors. Watch out for unsavory actors who claim they’ve been robbed or have fallen ill. Victims report being asked to send hundreds or thousands of dollars to “help” individuals who need money after a robbery or a hospital stay.
International romance scams
Someone running an international romance scam may also meet you on a social media or dating site, but their underlying strategy is claiming to be a successful entrepreneur. These international men (and women) of mystery use work and business meetings as excuses for never being able to meet you in person, but that won’t stop them from asking you for money to invest in their “business” once you’ve developed a relationship.
In a sextortion scam, someone will use sexual images or videos that you have shared with them for blackmail. The scammer may threaten to send pictures to loved ones or to your employer unless you send money or perform other sexual acts against your will.
How to recognize online dating scams
Someone who uses professional-looking modeling photos on their free dating site profile should set off an alarm right from the get-go, said May. If you’ve already been swept up in a whirlwind online romance and have a feeling that things are just too good to be true, they might just be. Here are red flags that someone might be trying to scam you:
- A tragic story brings you together. A scammer may say they’ve experienced divorce, death or sickness to tug at your heartstrings and build a connection with you. The scammer positions themselves as a victim and you as their soulmate to gain your affection.
- It’s a whirlwind romance. The relationship moves faster than usual, especially for a relationship that has never been physically consummated. He or she may text or email you several times a day, and the conversations sound like they might be straight out of a romance novel.
- A real-life date never happens. Fraudsters may come up with tall tales to explain why they can’t meet up. Even if airplane tickets are booked and plans are made, the person will find a last-minute reason to cancel.
- There are few photos on their profile. A con artist who steals photos to use on social media and dating profiles may only have a handful of pictures. They may also refuse to video chat with you to hide their true identity.
- The person tries to isolate you from family and friends. The scammer doesn’t want anyone close to you to question the relationship. They may try to put a wedge between you and loved ones so they can continue the fraud.
- English may not be their first language. Some romance scams are carried out by non-native English speakers. The tell: email or text messages that feature poor grammar, misspellings or incorrect word usage.
Tips on how to protect yourself
To guard yourself against these dating site scams, know the signs to look for and consider these tips and precautions:
- Run a background check search. Comb through social media profiles for inconsistencies in their story. Run a people search to see if you can unearth more information on the individual. You can also perform a reverse image search to see if the photos the person is using belong to someone else.
- Don’t send money or receive money. Be wary if someone asks you to send cash, wire transfers or gift cards. Receiving money can be just as dangerous. If you receive fraudulent funds, you could find yourself on the wrong side of the law for depositing bad checks or laundering dirty money.
- Don’t ship items or goods. Scammers may ask for valuables instead of cash. They could be using goods to resell to other people for money.
- Don’t open a new bank account. A scammer may ask you to open a bank account or ask for access to your current bank account to deposit bad checks or wire fraudulent funds. Do not accept a commission for transferring money or sending cashier’s checks to unknown addresses.
- Never give out personal information or photos. Personal information could be used to make purchases or to open accounts on your behalf. Don’t give a stranger your address, Social Security number, driver’s license or any other identifying information. Private images could be used for blackmail.
- Gut check with your friends and family. Sometimes you aren’t able to see the forest for the trees when you’re emotionally vested in a relationship, even when it’s a fraudulent one.
What to do if you’ve been scammed
If you suspect you may have been scammed, “Stop talking to them right away and don’t confront them,” said May. When confronted, con artists can come up with what seem like valid excuses, which makes it harder to untangle from their web of lies. There are also some immediate steps experts recommend you take:
- Change your phone number and email address. Break all communication. Criminals often keep “sucker lists” of victims that they then try to contact again with different types of scams, said Liebling.
- File a report. File a complaint with the FBI and the FTC. You can also search for your state attorney general here and file a complaint. Many of these crimes go unpunished, but filing a complaint can still help law enforcement in their efforts to crack down on online scammers.
- Report the profile. File a complaint or report fraudulent profiles on the social media platform or dating site that you’re using.
- Keep a record of your communication. If the scammer is brought to justice, the communication between you two could be used as evidence in a court of law.
- Take a break from the internet. The emotional impact of being scammed can be long-lasting. Speak with someone if you’re struggling to come to terms with what has happened, and take an internet hiatus.
- Beware of new scams. Someone who’s fallen for one scam may be targeted for other scams. Take a long, hard look at all of your other online interactions.
Online dating scams can be both financially and emotionally devastating. To avoid falling victim to one, it never hurts to guard your heart—and your bank account—from people you haven’t ever met in real life.