How to Avoid and Protect Yourself From Online Dating & Romance Scams
When Candace first met Eric on an online dating site, he seemed like a dream come true. After a rough divorce the year before, she was thrilled to meet a man who shared her religion, interests, and love of children and animals. Unfortunately, they couldn’t meet in person because he was studying overseas, but they talked and texted every day.
Then one day Eric called in a panic, saying his passport had been stolen. He needed money in a hurry or he’d be thrown out of the country just a few months shy of earning his degree. Candace wired him the small sum without hesitation – but when he contacted her a few weeks later saying he needed a much bigger sum to pay legal bills, she realized she was being scammed. Her whole relationship with Eric was a scheme to get money out of her.
This story is fictional, but the scenario is all too real. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), online romance or confidence scams are a fast-growing type of Internet crime. More than 14,500 Americans fell victim to this kind of scam in 2016, up from fewer than 6,000 in 2014. And that number may only represent a fraction of the real total. According to HuffPost, FBI agents believe roughly 85% of all romance scams are never reported because the victims are too embarrassed to come forward.
Online romance scams are a form of “catfishing” scam, in which a person creates a fake online identify. Some catfishers use these fake identities to annoy or harass others online, or just to flirt without commitment. But for romance scammers, it’s all about money. They lure their victims into an online relationship and use it to get money out of them – sometimes thousands of dollars.
Romance scammers work by setting up fake profiles on dating sites and social media. Sometimes, they use fake names and stock photos; in other cases, they steal real people’s names, images, and personal information. They usually claim to have jobs that keep them outside the country for long periods of time, such as working on an oil rig, serving in the military, or working for a nonprofit.
Next, they seek out victims – usually people who are lonely and vulnerable – and work to build up relationships with them. They can spend months winning over their victims with regular conversations, long e-mails, poetry, gifts, and declarations of love – everything except face-to-face meetings. Often, they rely on pre-written scripts that tell them exactly what to say at what point in the relationship. Britain’s Telegraph newspaper reported in 2016 on a woman who was sentenced to two years in prison for writing scripts for romance scams, including one in which the scammer claimed to be a widow whose husband was killed in the 9/11 attacks.
Next, the scammers start asking for money. Often they’ll start out by asking for a small amount, such as a few extra dollars for a child’s birthday present. Once they know the victim is hooked, they pretend to go through some kind of crisis that requires a large amount of cash to fix, such as a robbery, a medical or legal problem, a frozen bank account, or a business opportunity. Often, they work with accomplices who pose as friends, doctors, lawyers, or other people who can back up their story.
Scammers typically ask their victims for money in a form that’s hard to trace, such as a prepaid card or a wire transfer. The victims are often happy to pay because they think helping out their love interest will make it easier for them to finally meet in person. Instead, the scammer continues to string the victim along with more requests for money, sometimes keeping up the fraud for years. When the victim finally wises up – or runs out of money – the scammer disappears.
In a few cases, the scam continues even after the victim catches on. The scammers admit that the romance started out as a con job, but claims that they’ve fallen in love with the victim. Then they use their emotional hold over the victim to lure them into helping them with their crimes – sometimes even turning them into accomplices in other scams.
Many romance scammers operate outside the United States. According to HuffPost, most of them are located in Ghana and Nigeria, but an increasing number originate in communities of West African immigrants in Canada, Malaysia, and Britain. Some of them are career criminals, but many are college students with low incomes looking for extra cash. In Nigeria, many of these fraudsters – known as “Yahoo boys” after the Internet portal Yahoo – have grown very rich, buying multiple houses, fancy cars, and expensive jewelry with the proceeds of their crimes.
To make this kind of money, romance scammers often have multiple victims on the hook at once. HuffPost cites a case in which a single person was working 25 online romance scams at once, posing as both men and women. Some of the most successful scammers have extracted tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars from a single victim.
Romance scams can affect anyone. Barb Sluppik, who runs the watchdog site RomanceScams.org, says in an interview with Consumer Reports that she’s worked with “men and women of all ages – doctors and lawyers, CEOs of companies, people from the entertainment industry – who you’d never think in a million years would fall for these scams but do.” Even celebrities aren’t immune, as the world learned in 2012 when Notre Dame football player Manti Te’o discovered he’d spent two years in an online relationship with a woman who never existed. However, some people are more likely to be targeted than others. Scammers’ favorite victims are:
The people who fall for romance scams aren’t the only victims. Scammers can also cause a lot of trouble for the people – usually men – whose images they steal to create their fake identities.
U.S. soldiers are particularly likely to be targeted, since being deployed overseas gives scammers a good excuse for not being able to meet their love interests in person. Also, the image of a strong soldier protecting his country tends to appeal to women seeking love online. Even high-ranking officers aren’t immune to this problem. HuffPost reports that General John F. Campbell had his image used in more than 700 fake profiles in the space of six months after assuming control of the U.S. military forces in Afghanistan.
Another target, Dr. Steve G. Jones, had not only his image but his entire identity stolen by scammers. For several years, he’s been receiving angry e-mails, Facebook messages, and sometimes even personal visits from women who claim he broke their hearts and took their money. Many of them refuse to believe he isn’t the man they fell in love with and have begged him to continue a relationship that never existed. Jones now runs an entire Facebook group dedicated to exposing scammers who have used his image to defraud women.
According to the FBI, Americans lost over $230 million to confidence fraud and romance scams in 2016. However, because so many of these crimes go unreported, this is probably only a fraction of the real total. Online romance scams can cost their victims thousands of dollars – sometimes even their entire life’s savings – and the chances of recovering any of it are very low. HuffPost reports that one notorious Nigerian scammer, Olayinka Ilumsa Sunmola, drove at least three women into bankruptcy and cost several more their jobs and their homes.
These devastating financial losses are far from the only dangers romance scams pose to their victims. Other hazards include:
Part of what makes romance scams so upsetting for the victims is that they become emotionally attached to someone who doesn’t really exist. However, for people who know what to look for, there are often red flags that reveal something is amiss. Here are some warning signs that your online flame could be a scammer:
None of this means that finding love online is impossible; however, it pays to be careful. Scam artists can pop up on even the most reputable online dating and social media sites – and these sites can’t possibly screen everyone who signs up to make sure their profiles are genuine. So, if you want to make sure your new online crush is the real deal, you’ll have to do a bit of legwork yourself.
Here are a few tips experts recommend to protect yourself when meeting people online:
It’s possible to be a victim of an online romance scam even if the scammer never approaches you directly. Personal photos and videos you post online could be stolen and used to scam others – especially if you’re a good-looking male.
Steve Jones, the New York man who had his image stolen for hundreds of fraudulent profiles, has posted a public service announcement on YouTube about how to protect yourself from this form of identity theft. He urges viewers to be cautious about accepting friend requests from people they don’t know. Check out their profiles to see how many friends they have, and especially how many friends they have in common with you. If you can’t figure out how they know you, don’t accept their requests, which would give them access to your personal images.
Another way to protect yourself is to run periodic reverse-image searches for your own photos. If you use Facebook, you can also instruct the site to turn on its facial recognition software to find photos of you and make sure they’re legitimate. If you find your image posted on someone else’s profile, you can report the fake profile to the site where you found it and demand to have it removed. Search online to find instructions for doing this on different dating and social media sites.
If you’ve lost money in a romance scam, your chances of getting it back it are slim. However, there are a few things you can do to improve the odds of recovering your cash, catching the criminal, and protecting yourself in the future:
If you’ve been trying to find love online – or if you were hoping that you already had – hearing about romance scams can be discouraging. The more you learn about them, the easier it is to suspect that anyone who expresses an interest in you online is just after your money. After a while, you may be tempted to delete all your online dating profiles, refuse any new friend requests, and stop trying to connect with new people online at all.
However, there’s no need to go to this kind of extreme. It makes sense to be cautious about people you meet online, but it’s also important to remember that most people aren’t scammers. If someone claims to be interested in you because you share common interests or ideals, there’s a good chance they mean exactly what they say.
As long as you take reasonable precautions, such as checking out a person’s backstory and arranging to meet in person, there’s nothing wrong with pursuing an online relationship. Romance scams are a fact of life – but so is true love.
Have you ever encountered an online romance scam?
Amy Livingston is a freelance writer who can actually answer yes to the question, “And from that you make a living?” She has written about personal finance and shopping strategies for a variety of publications, including ConsumerSearch.com, ShopSmart.com, and the Dollar Stretcher newsletter. She also maintains a personal blog, Ecofrugal Living, on ways to save money and live green at the same time.
How to Avoid and Protect Yourself From Online Dating & Romance Scams
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