Stay Safe From Online Dating Scams
More and more Americans are turning to online dating services to meet potential mates, but while some find a fun tryst or a love for a lifetime, an unlucky few end up caught at the end of a scammer’s hook.
According to a 2019 study from Pew Research Center, 30% of Americans have reported using a dating site or app, 23% have gone on at least one date with someone they met through online dating, and 12% have ended up in a long-term relationship or marriage with an online match. These numbers, which have been on the rise for years, experienced a surge during the COVID-19 pandemic—and as they’ve gone up, so have the number of reports of online dating scams. Let’s talk about the warning signs of these scams and give you tips on how to stay safe.
What is an online dating scam?
At once a form of financial abuse and a confidence trick, an online dating scam (also known as a romance scam) occurs when a con artist uses a fake online identity to establish a romantic relationship with a victim for the purpose of emotionally manipulating them out of their money. We’ve previously covered online dating and romance scams in general on this blog—now, we’re going to take a look at how these scams specifically play out on online dating services.
Examples of online dating scams
Online dating scams are more nuanced than one might think. They can involve everything from wire fraud to selling someone a bad business.
Common tactics used by online dating scammers include...
- Catfishing: Romance scammers are a subset of catfishes— people who create fake dating profiles or social media accounts with the intention of deceiving other users. Some scammers steal the photos and identities of real people off of social media, while others hide behind shots of actors and models. Often, the individual being impersonated remains unaware of what’s going on until they begin to receive angry or heartbroken messages from those preyed upon by their scammer doppelganger.
- Grooming: The first phase of a romance scam involves the scammer grooming the victim to gain their trust and affection. Over a period of weeks or months, the scammer communicates regularly with the victim, using love bombing tactics like quickly-escalating, passionate declarations of devotion and constant positive attention to artificially generate a sense of emotional intimacy. They’ll move the relationship along at an exhilarating pace, and will begin to make promises about meeting in person and getting married at a very early stage
- Asking for money and gifts: The next phase of the scam begins when the scammer zeroes in on the victim’s money. One way in which a romance scammer may try to defraud their victim is by spinning a story about some difficult life event that they need immediate financial assistance to resolve (more on these stories later). Once the victim agrees to help, they’ll be asked to send money via specific channels like non-bank wire transfers, preloaded gift cards, and reloadable debit cards—these kinds of transactions are hard to reverse and allow the recipient to remain anonymous.
- Investment fraud: Another way these scammers make money is by getting victims to buy into sham investment opportunities. A notice published by Interpol earlier this year outlines the steps of this particular scheme: after the initial grooming stages, the scammer entices the victim to download a trading app, helping them to set up their account and begin buying financial products (often cryptocurrencies). These trading apps can be insidious in their resemblance to legitimate trading services--they’re even staffed with phony customer service agents. Once the victim has paid in a large enough sum, though, they’ll find that their account can no longer be accessed; their money’s long gone, and so is their so-called sweetheart.
- Money laundering: Some online dating scammers transfer money to their victims’ bank accounts, only to claim that they need the money to be returned or transferred to a different account. The victim, believing that they’re simply being a helpful partner, will end up serving the role of a “money mule” by laundering money obtained through criminal activities. The FBI warns that even an unwitting accomplice to money laundering may face federal charges, suffer damage to their credit and financial standing, or be held liable for repaying laundered sums.
- Nonconsensual image sharing: One particularly exploitative variation on the online dating scam involves blackmailing a victim into giving up their money by threatening to make public explicit photos or videos of the victim acquired during their relationship.
- Personal information theft: A scammer may also try to extract information from their victim that can be used to gain direct control over their secure accounts and finances. While it wouldn’t be unusual for a new love interest to ask about some of these personal details in casual conversation (e.g. one’s full name and birthdate) , questions about more secure info like one’s SSN and bank account number should be taken as glaring red flags.
Online dating scammers’ stories
When constructing their online personas and making appeals to their lovers for money, romance scammers tend to follow a few basic templates, including…
- A hard-working hero abroad: Online dating scammers targeting potential victims in the U.S. will typically assume the identity of an American stationed overseas; military service members, doctors, humanitarian aid workers, and oil rig workers are commonly impersonated.
- An urgent financial need: As mentioned above, scammers often try to get their victim to send funds to “assist” with a “difficult situation”. This made-up emergency might pose a threat to the relationship—perhaps the victim’s overseas lover won’t be able to fulfill all the plans they made to move in together and get married if they can’t drum up the money for travel documents or a plane ticket out of their home country. It could also be a tragic event that plays on the victim’s sympathies, like unexpected medical expenses for a very ill family member, a robbery or mugging, or bad luck in business. The victim may even get calls from an accomplice posing as another character in the story, like a doctor or an embassy official.
- An investment opportunity, generously shared: Scammers who target victims with fake investment apps will appear as loving, financially successful partners who are genuinely interested in the victim’s financial wellbeing; they’ll claim that they happened to make a great deal of money through the service they’re peddling, and will be very patient and supportive as they guide the victim through the steps of signing up and investing.
Online dating scam statistics
- Financial abuse statistics: As data from the Federal Trade Commission indicates, romance scams—including those occurring on online dating sites and apps—take a notable and ever-growing financial toll on unsuspecting Americans. From 2016 to 2020, consumer reports of these scams to the FTC nearly tripled, and from 2015 to 2020, reported total dollar losses increased more than ninefold, reaching a record $304 million in 2020. This was higher than the total losses reported for any other type of scam that year. The median individual loss in 2020 was $2,500—over 10 times more than the median dollars lost to other fraud types that year.
- Psychological impacts: Victims of romance scams don’t just suffer financial losses—they also experience the loss of an intimate relationship and the trauma of being betrayed and exploited by a loved one. Shock, shame, anger, loss of trust in others, grief, and self-loathing are common emotional reactions, and the victim may experience lasting effects on their mental health.
How to avoid online dating scams
- When in doubt, upload their profile pictures to a reverse image search engine. If the photos have been stolen from anywhere else on the Internet, their source will probably show up in your search.
- Ask to video chat or meet in person. If they refuse or repeatedly make up excuses to cancel at the last minute, you might be dealing with a catfish. If they do agree to meet in person, though, make sure to carefully follow digital dating safety tips!
- Keep an eye out for red flags, including the typical scammer tactics and cover stories described above. Don’t be afraid to pull away or cut contact completely if something doesn’t add up.
- Never conduct any kind of transaction on behalf of an online friend or partner that you haven’t met in person. If they truly do have your best interests in mind, they’ll understand your caution.
- Try to avoid sending compromising images of yourself to anyone that you’ve only interacted with online. Engaging in sexual acts over video chat or a phonecall isn’t any safer—these can easily be recorded.
What to do if you've been the victim of an online dating scam
- Document the relationship. Take screenshots of all your text conversations with the scammer, and save records of any transactions they got you to make. You’ll need this documentation to file reports and to potentially get your money back.
- Block the scammer—repeatedly, if necessary. They may try to find new ways to contact you, and will likely try to win you over again by apologizing or claiming to feel a real connection with you, but they’re just trying to get as much of your money as they can.
- Call your bank, credit card company, and/or any other financial institutions involved in transactions made between you and the scammer. If you gave out any information that could give the scammer access to your financial accounts, let them know at once.
- If you sent a gift card, contact the company that issued it.
- Report the scammer to the online dating platform, and to the authorities. You can report scams directly to the FTC online at https://reportfraud.ftc.gov/, and to the Internet Crime Complaint Center of the FBI at https://www.ic3.gov/. You may also choose to file a police report with local law enforcement.
The presence of scammers on dating websites and apps is by no means a sign that you need to give up on looking for love online altogether. If you stay vigilant and keep yourself informed of how online dating and romance scammers operate, you’ll be able to protect yourself—and your wallet—as you swipe left and right to your heart’s content.
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