True love may be priceless, but searching for it can cost dearly. Among the top-grossing swindles worldwide, romance scams netted fraudsters nearly $2 billion in 2016 (roughly the same amount generated by legitimate dating websites) and a new victim every 48 seconds.
The most pursued and prized target: American women over 40 — usually divorced, widowed and/or disabled — who are looking for love or companionship online. Typically working from boiler rooms in Africa or Russia (though some are independent), so-called catfish scammers create fake profiles on dating sites and apps, usually wooing several people simultaneously. They often present themselves as wealthy businessmen, deployed soldiers or altruistic do-gooders working overseas (or models, to target men), stealing photos and actual identities from social media or other websites.
Once Cupid’s arrow strikes after weeks of courting, sometimes including exchanges of nude photos or secretly recorded intimate talk, the con comes: a request for the lovestruck target to send money for a supposed personal emergency or a plane ticket so the pair can meet. After complying, victims either never hear from the cyber suitors again or are bombarded with more money requests. Some who wise up or refuse to wire-transfer cash are threatened with “sextortion” — an order to pay a ransom to prevent the release of embarrassing “private moment” mementos. If you’re seeking a match in cyberspace, follow these do’s and don’ts to prevent a romance scam.
Do some online sleuthing. Compare suitor photos with those used by scammers at http://romancescams.org and http://romancescamsnow.com. Also check profile photos at images.google.com or TinEye.com, and copy and paste suspicious text into search engines to see if it’s been used elsewhere, perhaps under a different name.
Don’t reveal your last name, address, workplace or other personal information until you’ve met an online match. If you talk by phone, turn off your phone’s location settings.
Do question delivery. Despite describing themselves as educated American or British professionals, foreign-based swindlers often send messages littered with misspellings and poor grammar. Vague or repetitive email responses could indicate you’ve been hooked by an organized crime ring, and one scammer picks up where a cohort left off.
Don’t depend on dating sites to protect you. Read the terms of service. Typically, the company is not responsible for vetting users’ identities or for what those users say or do. Other language explicitly limits the company’s legal liability.
Do sign this petition so online dating sites better protect subscribers and crack down on romance scammers.
Don’t fall for eye candy. Your budding sweetie may be incredibly good-looking because the photo of him that you’re looking at was lifted from an online modeling site. If your suitor claims to be a millionaire businessman, Army general or hardworking doctor treating orphans, consider their rarity in life, much less in online chat rooms.
Don’t send money or fall for these telltale signs of a romance scammer:
- Requesting that you leave the dating site and use personal email or instant messaging to communicate.
- Declaring “love” or “destiny” too quickly.
- Giving you a guilt trip if you don’t send money as requested.
- Making excuses for not being able to speak by telephone, or refusing to provide a phone number.
- Claiming to be from the U.S., but traveling or working overseas.
- Planning but abruptly canceling a supposed visit because of a traumatic event or a business deal gone sour.
- Requesting that you wire money or cash a check or money order and send money back or to a third person.
For information about other scams, sign up for the Fraud Watch Network. You’ll receive free email alerts with tips and resources to help you spot and avoid identity theft and fraud, and keep tabs of scams and law enforcement alerts in your area at our Scam-Tracking Map.
Photo credit: iStock/grafvision
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