Online Dating Scams and How to Protect Yourself
Online dating websites and apps can provide access to a vast dating pool. But be careful. They can also woo you with scams.
Romance scammers prey on loneliness and trust. Scammers have been known to create fake profiles on dating sites and defraud would-be romantic partners out of money. Americans reportedly lost approximately $143 million to romance scams in 2018, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
Romance scams don’t appear to be going away. Losses from dating-related fraud quadrupled, from $33 million lost in 2015 to $143 million lost in 2018.
The good news? You can help protect yourself — and your wallet — by understanding how online dating scams work.
What is an online dating scam?
Here’s how a typical dating scam works. A fraudster might create a fake profile either on a dating app or on popular social media sites like Instagram and Facebook, then strike up a conversation.
Over time, the con artist builds trust with their target, sometimes communicating several times a day through online chats, text messages, and emails.
When the moment seems right, the scammer will ask for money or personal information about the victim's financial life. Once the victim provides the money or information — poof — the scammer often disappears.
Romance scams can get more complex and public, too. Here’s an example. You may meet someone online who asks you to move your conversation to another instant-messaging site, such as Skype. Your conversations might reveal personal information or the messages might get intimate, and the scammer may even ask you to exchange photos.
What happens next? In a recent dating extortion scam, a victim received a link to a site where their conversations were posted, along with their photos, contact information, and a demand for payment to have the information removed.
How to spot an online dating scam
You probably have a sense for what's considered normal behavior online. But it might be hard to see through a scam when emotions are involved. Here are some telltale signs you may be talking to a scammer.
A legitimate dating profile usually has plenty of photos of the person in different situations, with one or two that show the person's whole body — not just part of their face, for instance. The individual might also include links to their Instagram or Facebook accounts.
In contrast, a dating profile might be fake if the person doesn't list any details. Or maybe their interests and hobbies just about exactly match yours — too much to be a coincidence.
Another trick? Fakers often pose as military members who are serving abroad, which would seem to explain why they can't meet in person.
And if they use stock photos for their profile picture or refuse to video chat? Those are clues that often mean the person is trying to hide their true identity.
Asking for money
If your online love interest asks you to wire money or send a gift card, beware of a likely scam. These are ways to get cash quickly and remain anonymous. Plus, the transactions are hard to reverse.
In 2018, the median reported loss per victim from romance scams was $2,600, according to the FTC. For people over 70 years old, that number was close to $10,000.
The scammer may ask you to send money for things like travel costs, medical bills, and gambling debts, and they usually have a sob story to back up their request. Once you send a little bit of money, they'll ask for more. If you say “no,” their messages may get desperate and aggressive.
And there’s an alternate money scam. They may send you money. That could rope you into a "money mule" scheme.
The scammer may ask to deposit money into your bank account, distribute the funds to other people, or deliver packages. These requests could be tied to a money-laundering or drug-trafficking network.
Leaving the dating site to communicate
Many online dating sites offer some type of safety features such as these, for example.
- Dating-site users don't have to swap phone numbers.
- They may be able to report inappropriate messages or offensive people.
- They can track their in-app conversations.
If a scammer asks you to leave the dating site and talk using text messages or other chat options, you lose those safety measures. Plus, the person will have your phone number, which could make it harder to cut communication.
It’s a good idea to pay attention to your conversations. Here are a several red flags to watch for.
- The person’s messages look like they could be copy-and-pasted into any conversation.
- The conversation doesn't flow or make sense.
- Grammar and spelling are way off.
- The person professes their love for you quickly, which can be an attempt to gain your trust.
Promising to visit, then canceling
Scammers typically work to keep their identities secret. That's because once they've taken your money, they don't want to get caught.
One way to keep you from questioning their identity is to promise to come visit. They may even have you pay for plane tickets or other travel costs.
But the scam artist will cancel at the last minute, providing an elaborate reason for why they can't see you after all.
How to protect yourself from online dating scams
Dating scams can often end with victims losing money. In some cases, victims have even been pulled into criminal activity.
Besides the financial costs, there may be emotional costs, too. You may feel heartbroken, depressed, or embarrassed after someone you trusted scammed you.
That's why it's important to protect yourself against online dating scams.
How to protect yourself from being scammed
Here's the rule that online dating experts agree on: Don't give out your financial information, top off a cash reload card, or send gifts or money to someone you haven't met face to face.
It’s a good idea to approach an online relationship slowly and ask questions as you get to know each other. Look for inconsistencies or answers that don’t add up with other details the person has provided.
If something about your online romance doesn't feel right, check out your love interest's social media profiles or do a reverse image search to see whether their photos were used on other sites.
To do this, right-click an image of the person, choose “copy,” and go to images.google.com, where you can paste the image. Google will show you the websites where the image appears online. If it shows up on a stock photo site or seems to belong to someone else entirely, then it could be part of a scam.
If you suspect an online dating scam, tell someone you trust, and consider whether friends and family members have already pointed out warning signs to you. Stop communicating with the likely scammer and report them to the online dating service if you're using one. The app may investigate and flag or delete the profile.
Falling in love can be great. But before you let someone steal your heart online, check out this graphic for statistics related to online dating scams, as well as tips for how to help protect yourself in the online‐dating world.
What to do if you’ve been scammed by online dating
It may be nearly impossible to recover money after you've been scammed, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. But reporting these incidents helps federal investigators look for commonalities in these scams. Analyzing the data may help lead investigators to the perpetrators.
Collect any records you have of your online relationship. That might include conversations, transactions that track any money you've sent, and any other information that can help identify the perpetrator. Report the incident to the FTC at ftc.gov/complaint and to the FBI at ic3.gov.
Also, contact your bank right away if you think you've sent money to a scammer. The bank may be able to reverse the transaction or track down information about the account you've sent money to. It may help if you've also filed a police report.
According to one estimate, approximately 10% of online dating profiles are fakes. Knowing the signs of fraud and trusting your instincts can make all the difference between getting duped and avoiding a scam.
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