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How to spot online dating scams

Romance fraud is one of the most popular types of cybercrimes. Internet users, desperate for human contact, are easy victims for seasoned scammers. It’s easy to see why — cybercriminals don’t need to work very hard to gain people’s trust without ever meeting them.

Anna Rasmussen

Anna Rasmussen

Jun 08, 2021 · 5 min read

How to spot online dating scams

What do online dating scams look like? Some are carried out by individuals looking to lure money out of their victims by building a strong relationship and then pretending they need money.

Other online dating scams can be well-planned operations involving multiple people and built around dating websites. These operate in different ways. Some will fool you into becoming a long-term paying customer, while others may try to install malware on your device.

Then, they can log your actions online, film you through your webcam, and then use this information for blackmail. They could also steal your credit card and online banking information. Or they might encrypt everything and demand you to pay ransom to regain access to your data and devices.

How common are online dating scams?

These scams have been widespread for a while, but they're getting worse every year. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in the US has reported a sharp increase in the yearly financial damage caused by online dating fraud between 2016 and 2020. During this five year period, estimated losses shot up from $75M to $305M annually, a rapid spike of $230M.

That massive four year jump is being driven by the growing number of people falling victim to these crimes. Back in 2016, there were approximately 11,000 reported online dating scams in the US. By 2020, that figure was up to more than 32,000. These numbers could be even higher if unreported incidents were factored in.

And while this is just one fraudulent tactic among many, it's striking how much financial damage it can do to an individual. The average loss resulting from an online dating scam is more than ten times that of any other kind of fraud, coming in at around $2,500 for most victims last year.

How to recognize online dating scams

Romance scams, also called sweetheart scams, begin the same way any other online relationship does. Someone chats you up, and you start talking daily. The person on the other side of the screen might seem like any other online friend, but if you put too much trust in someone you hardly know, you might regret it. Here are some signs that your romantic interest is not who they say they are:

1. They don’t have any online accounts

Some people choose to keep their lives private and stay away from social media altogether. That’s a reasonable decision. But it can be suspicious if your new romantic interest doesn’t have any digital footprint at all. For most people, you’ll find something if you search for their name, email, or username: things like work or university accounts, high school or local newspaper articles, petitions they’ve signed, etc. But if there’s nothing at all or some things just don’t add up, you should ask them about it and see how they react.

2. They are perfect

You love jazz, they love jazz. You like dogs, they can’t wait to get one once they move to a bigger house. You enjoy seafood? Of course they make a killer shrimp gumbo. If they are overly enthusiastic every time you talk about something you enjoy, chances are, they are pretending to seem more relatable than they really are.

3. They always look incredible

All of their photos look retouched, they are always posing, and they look perfect in every pic. Some people do put a lot of effort into their online image, but that’s usually part of their job. If your new friend has a regular day job, posing for hours and searching for perfect lighting every single day seems unrealistic.

In the age of prolific Instagram models, getting hundreds of pictures of someone is very easy. If you ever feel suspicious, ask them to video chat. Just make sure to use well-known, trustworthy software to do it.

4. Their work requires them to travel a lot

A lot of people need to constantly travel for their job. But online scammers will always say they live far away or are on the move to avoid meeting you in real life. It’s also easier to explain different time zones or sudden disappearances. It buys them time to build a stronger relationship with their victim without ever meeting them.

5. They ask you for money

When you spend weeks or even months getting to know somebody, you’ll start to like them a lot and it’ll look like they like you. This makes it very hard to take a step back and see the full picture. But if someone you met online and never saw in real life asks you for money, it’s a huge red flag. They are almost certainly a scammer.

They will tell you sad, heartbreaking, or terrible stories. They might claim that they have no friends or family to help them or that they need help immediately due to an emergency. Don't give in, question everything in their stories, and stay skeptical. If they mention Western Union, block them immediately and pat yourself on the back for avoiding a scammer.

How to stay safe

  • Scrutinize the website before signing up. Do your research, read a bunch of reviews, and take a good critical look at the website before you put yourself out there. If it bombards you with “Hot singles in your area!” ads before you even sign up, chances are you won't find what you’re looking for. Best to stay away and find a legitimate website you can trust to keep your data safe.
  • Don't give people personal information. You might share some things when you feel that your relationship is getting serious — like your social media accounts, for example. But don’t give away personal details like your address or telephone number. Pay attention if they start asking things that sound like security questions: your pet’s name, the street you grew up on, your childhood nickname, etc. That’s a legitimate scammer tactic that you should be aware of.
  • Be skeptical but respectful. You don't want to ruin the relationship by questioning their every word, but you need to stay safe. If they feel offended, explain why you’re being careful. A reasonable person will understand. A real scammer will be outraged and greatly offended.
  • Use security tools. This goes for anyone who uses the internet. Having a reliable antimalware software on your devices will keep you safer. And a VPN will add an extra layer of protection to your online life by hiding your real IP and location.