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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.

Aurelija Andriekutė Aurelija Andriekutė

Aurelija Andriekutė

How to spot online dating scams

What do online dating scams look like? Some are carried out by individuals trying to get money out of their victims by building a strong relationship and then pretending they need financial help. However, cybercriminals also employ bots in their fraudulent schemes.

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?

Dating scams have been widespread for a while, but they're getting more prevalent every year. The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has reported a sharp increase in the yearly financial damage caused by online dating fraud between 2020 and 2021. Consumers lost $547M in 2021 alone. The newest data shows that losses were up to 80% compared to 2020 ($305M). The total losses over the past five years have reached $1.3B.

The FTC has also identified a new trend that emerged in 2021 when romance scammers lured their targets into dodgy cryptocurrency investment schemes. Users who paid scammers with cryptocurrency lost $139M in 2021, and their median loss was $10,000. But the majority of victims in 2021 used gift cards to pay fraudsters.

Such a rise in romance scams is not new. Between 2016 and 2020, the estimated losses shot up from $75M to $305M annually, a rapid spike of $230M. In 2016, 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 dating scams are just one fraudulent tactic among many, it's striking how much financial damage they can do. 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.

Examples of romance scams

The Tinder Swindler case

The now-trending Simon Leviev (aka the Tinder Swindler) case is one of the most elaborate and famous romance scams. It became widely known after the Netflix documentary was released.

Leviev used the Tinder dating site to find his victims. He operated in a straightforward manner — after first contact, he began to date his victim, displaying his fake affection and, of course, his riches. After some time, the swindler began to use made-up stories about failed deals and his enemies hunting him to justify his need for instant cash.

Leviev employed Ponzi scheme tactics — he used the money extracted from his newest victims on previous ones and for his own needs. He managed to extract hundreds of thousands of dollars and left several women emotionally distressed and with huge amounts of debt.

The Tinder Swindler changed his online identity several times and had an extensive social media presence showcasing his success and lavish lifestyle. Leviev usually started his fraudulent activity when he was already some time into a relationship and had gained the trust from his victims. After the release of the Netflix documentary, he was banned from several major online dating apps, including Tinder.

The Sophia and Aaron case

Another case reported by BBC involved a woman who planned to buy a house with her online future partner she had never met in person. As usual, this fake boyfriend persuaded the victim to transfer him money to buy a property for their future together. He gained her trust by communicating with her online and creating a fake story about his life. In the end, the victim was left with a debt of £300,000.

The Ryan Chen case

Last year, The Guardian reported the case of Ryan Chen (the victim’s name was changed to protect his privacy), a user of the Chinese dating app Tantan. Chen matched with a British woman who seemed attractive, so he gave her his WeChat and Facebook details. The woman requested they exchange nude photos. After receiving hers, Chen reciprocated. Then he got the reply that she would send his “nudes” to all his Facebook friends unless he paid her $4,000 to her Western Union account.

Chen contacted the police and informed a relative about his situation. The situation was resolved when he told the cybercriminal to go through with it — she stopped threatening him as a result. This case is an example of sextortion, a common online dating scam.

Nigerian romance scammers

One of the biggest dating scams involved eight Nigerian men, who managed to defraud more than 100 victims of almost $7M. These romance scammers used false identities on online dating sites and targeted widows and divorcees worldwide. After gaining victims' trust and establishing an emotional bond, they started to tell them sob stories about how they needed money to pay debts or taxes or cover transportation costs. Of course, they disappeared as soon as they extracted the requested cash from the victim's bank account.

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.
  • Don't meet up with people you don't trust. Always make sure a person is reliable and genuine before meeting them.
  • Arrange the first meetings to take place in public places where there are people around to stay on the safe side. If a person persistently suggests meeting somewhere remote on the first dates, it's a red flag.
  • 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. NordVPN's Threat Protection feature will also help to you identify malware-ridden files, to stop you from landing on malicious websites, and to block trackers and intrusive ads on the spot.
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Aurelija Andriekutė
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