More and more singles around the world are turning to online dating services to find love, and while there’s plenty of great people out there in the dating app world—the sad but undeniable truth is that not everyone on these sites has good intentions.
Unfortunately, there are a number of different types of bad actors on online dating sites, but one of the most common is the scammer.
In recent years, the online dating scam crisis has gotten a lot more attention. Partly due to the widely popular Netflix documentary: The Tinder Swindler, but also due to the fact that the frequency of these scams is increasing (by a lot).
The FBI reported a 25% increase in the number of romance scams reported since 2019 with monetary losses totaling $547 million in 2021.
Fortunately, many online dating scammers tend to use the same playbook, so they can be easy to spot if you know what to look for.
Let’s talk about the warning signs of these scams and give you tips on how to stay safe and what to do if you find yourself in an online dating scam.
What is an online dating scam?
An online dating scam (also known as a romance scam) occurs when a bad actor uses a fake online identity to establish a romantic online relationship with a victim for the purpose of emotionally manipulating them out of their money.
We’ve previously covered 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.
Signs of an online dating scam
Online dating scams are more nuanced than one might think. They can involve everything from wire fraud to selling someone a bad business.
Common signs of a romance scammer include...
- Catfishing: Romance scammers are a subset of catfishes— people who create fake profiles on dating apps pretending to be someone else, with the intention of deceiving other users. Some scammers steal the photos and identities of everyday people off of social media sites, while others hide behind a profile picture of an actor of a model. 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, often asking a lot of questions to make you feel important, while making promises about meeting in person and being together forever.
- 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.
- Moving the conversation elsewhere (in a hurry): Beware of anyone who is quick to move the conversation off of the dating website or app where it started. Scammers are eager to take the conversation elsewhere because many online dating sites have teams or technology that look for suspicious behavior and they don’t want to run the risk of getting caught. They may suggest you chat on a different platform like WhatsApp instead and use excuses like they “cannot afford to pay for the dating site anymore and might lose their profile”.
- Malware links: If someone sends you a link to their personal website or a social media account, do not click it. These links may lead you to a site that contains viruses and malware or phishing that could be used to steal your personal information. If someone wants to share their social media with you, they can send you their handle or provide their full name for you to find their profile on your own. You can also use a malicious URL tracker to check links for signs of scams.
- 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 fraudster 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 personal details in casual conversation (e.g. one’s full name and birthday), questions about one’s Social Security number or bank account number should be taken as glaring red flags that could lead to identity theft and financial fraud.
What are the most common online dating scam 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. Consumer reports of these scams to the FTC have been trending up, and have tripled since 2016. 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 detect an online dating scam
- When in doubt, upload one of their profile photos to a reverse image search engine. If the photos have been stolen from someone else’s social media profile, or from elsewhere on the Internet, the original source may show up in your search.
- Use a phone number lookup service to verify their identity. If they’re using a VOIP number, that’s usually a red flag that they’re hiding who they truly are.
- 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.
- Look out for red flags, including the typical scammer tactics and 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.
- Use a service like Garbo to run a background check and see if they have a history of harmful behavior, like identity theft or financial fraud. Even if they don’t have a history of romance scamming specifically, seeing if they have other records, such as violent offenses, could help you make a more informed decision on whether or not to trust this person.
- 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 phone call isn’t any safer—these can easily be recorded.
- Do not share your financial information under any circumstances. If your online partner or friend is truly in trouble, you can direct them to other resources for assistance or support them without sharing secure information.
What to do if you've been the victim of an online dating scam
Victims of online dating scams frequently report feeling overwhelmed and embarrassed, which often times prevents them from reporting or seeking support. We want to stress that online dating scammers are expert manipulators who take advantage of vulnerable people looking for love, and no victim should feel ashamed of what they’ve gone through. There are steps you can take to get justice and people you can talk to who have experience helping others who have gone through exactly what you’re going through.
- Document the relationship. Take screenshots of their dating profile, as well as all of your text/online 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.
- Contact the authorities—while generally faking a romantic relationship with someone is not illegal, using deceitful practices to trick someone out of their money is. Each jurisdiction and state has different laws regarding the crimes involved in online dating scams, but the authorities will be able to help you determine if the situation involved any offenses like money laundering or extortion, which are punishable by law.
- Report the scammer to the dating app or site that you met them on. You can usually figure out how to do this by visiting the app’s safety center or contacting their customer support team. You can also report this individual to other dating apps so they aren’t able to “platform hop”.
- Report scams directly to the FTC online at https://reportfraud.ftc.gov/, and to the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center at https://www.ic3.gov/. You may also choose to file a police report with local law enforcement.
- Reach out to hotlines and organizations like Victim Connect or the National Domestic Violence Hotline that can offer support and resources to help you heal.
The presence of scammers on online dating 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 romance scammers and cybercriminals operate, you’ll be able to protect yourself—and your wallet—as you swipe left and right to your heart’s content.