How to avoid online dating and romantic scams

The holiday season is also the rush hour for scammers offering fake love stories. Thousands of Americans looking for a new love to usher in the new year will instead be seduced by online scammers who use false identities and empty promises to dissuade the lover from their savings – or worse.

More Californians report being victims of these frauds than residents of any other state, a testament to the size of the state, if not necessarily its collective loneliness. And while the main targets in 2020 were people between the ages of 40 and 69, the Federal Trade Commission said in February, the number of reported fatalities has increased in every age group.

Consumers reported more than 30,000 of these scams to the FTC in 2020, three times as many as in 2016, with losses quadrupled to $ 304 million. The average loss was $ 2,500.

Are we becoming more gullible? Maybe? What we do know is that the pandemic has been a blessing for scammers, helping them conquer their brands from a distance and accelerating the growth of these crimes.

Thankfully, there are plenty of tips available from the FTC and other privacy-conscious organizations on how to recognize and protect yourself from scammers dressed as suitors.

The hunting grounds

Romantic scammers roam any territory where people are looking for love or just trying to get in touch with strangers. This includes dating services and hookup sites, but also social media networks, from which about half of the scams in recent years have originated.

A key part of the scam is the scammer’s ability to pretend to be someone they are not. Remember Peter Steiner’s New Yorker cartoon showing a dog on a PC saying, “On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog”? This is the central issue here.

Some initiatives, such as the EHarmony matchmaking site, attempt to avoid problems by preventing people from trolling the site for victims. They require users to fill out extended profiles, then use that information to decide who can connect with whom on the site. However, even on sites and social networks that require the use of real names, such as Facebook, scammers find ways to create fake accounts by copying other people’s pictures and creating fake stories.

The scam

Though their methods vary, all romantic scammers start out trying to win your trust, often through flattery and storytelling.

“They are very persuasive. They’re very credible, ”said Rhonda Perkins, an attorney in the FTC’s Marketing Practices Division. In particular, she said, scammers excel at finding ways to bond with their victims through shared experiences or interests.

“If you are religious, they are religious. If you love pets, they love pets. If you just suffered a devastating loss, they just suffered a devastating loss. They are really good at building those connections, ”Perkins said. “They are perceptive. They listen. Based on the things you’re talking about, they pick up those signals. They use it to evoke similar interests to consumers. “

Once the hook was set, the scammers then decided to part with your money.

Chelsea King on romancescams.org described it this way: “The scams start with small requests to test the water. It could be anything from a salary that didn’t make it to a social security check that got lost in the mail. The scammer will ask to borrow money from a victim with a promise to pay it back. If the victim agrees, the scammers know they have the green light to proceed. “

The questions may seem logical enough: Your suitor says he needs money to pay the dating app’s membership fees and stay in touch, or he wants to buy a plane ticket to visit you. Or the logic could be something extraordinary and heartbreaking: a health emergency, say, or a family tragedy.

Scammers typically ask for gift certificates or non-bank wire transfers (think Western Union). Regardless of the amount or type of payment required, the FTC advises, “Never send money or gifts to someone you haven’t met in person, even if they send you money first.”

A more insidious scam tries to trick a person into laundering money. According to the FBI, the scammer will ask the person they are approaching online to help them with a task that involves accepting certain funds, then transferring them to a third person. What the “money mule” in the middle doesn’t realize is that the funds are the proceeds of a crime and the transfer is designed to prevent cops from tracing the source. Worse still, if the scheme is discovered, the money mule can be prosecuted even if he had no idea that a crime had been committed.

The Crime Junkie podcast highlighted another wrinkle this year. Several women across the country reported going to a bar to meet a man they had recently hooked up with online, only to be stood up after being instructed to order two shots of a distinctive liquor – and then another odd one. man who rushed in and tried to get them to leave with him. No one knows where it would end, but an FBI agent interviewed on the podcast suggested that women could have been targeted for human trafficking.

red flags

Scammers often stick to a formula that has worked in the past. Here are some of the hallmarks of the mock courtship ritual, according to FTC, EHarmony, people research firm SocialCatfish.com, and cybersecurity firm Norton.

Their profiles promise a great companion, but they’re general enough to appeal to just about anyone. This is by design on matchmaking sites – scammers are trying to match as many potential victims as possible.

They put the whirlwind in the love story. SocialCatfish.com warned: “Be careful if anyone seems to fall in love with you and they write and say all these loving things about you after a short amount of time,” particularly if they haven’t talked to you yet.

They say their work keeps them away – truly distant. Military service is a common claim. Look for alleged service members asking for help to afford things provided by the military, such as medical treatment.

They may agree to meet you in person, but in reality they never do. Perkins said the cases he has handled at the FTC have a common thread: the perpetrators always have reasons why they can’t meet you in person, but they still need your money.

They may also find reasons not to video chat, and their online profiles have few pictures.

They try to move your conversations off the site you met on. Scammers do this to avoid the site’s security features.

They tell stories that aren’t consistent and give vague answers when specific questions are asked. Meanwhile, their questions seem too personal or inappropriate.

They claim to be widows recently.

And when they ask for money, which they inevitably do, they have a specific payment method in mind, which cannot be reversed. If your new “soul mate” overseas tells you the only way to help them is through Western Union, Perkins said, “it’s a scam.”

How to protect yourself

Avoid the temptation to spiral into a new intense relationship. Scammers know that when you drop head over heels, your money can spill. “We can’t say it enough: Don’t send money transfers or gift card numbers to someone you met via an online dating site or social media,” Perkins said.

Before a relationship heats up, try to verify that your online lover is who they claim to be. There are a number of sites that can collect public documents, social media posts, and other published data associated with a name or address, albeit for a fee. You can also run the person’s profile pictures via a reverse image search, such as those from Google or TinEye.com.

While you’re at it, run some of the more flowery messages it sent you through Google. Pictures copied from someone else’s profile and recycled scripts are telltale signs of a scammer. Do the same thing with your new boyfriend’s declared occupation, to see how many times people have been beaten up by online suitors claiming to be such a person. Especially if your fiancé claims to work on an offshore oil rig.

Insist on a video chat. At the very least, you’ll find out if the person you’re chatting with matches their profile picture.

Do not disclose sensitive personal or financial information.

Run your thoughts from people you trust to get their opinion of your suitor’s legitimacy. Perkins said, “We’ve found that when people talk to someone they trust and they get that bowel control … it helps them avoid losing money.” If your friends and family say they are worried and that the whole setup sounds iffy, listen to them.

And if you conclude that you’ve been scammed, Perkins said, contact the company that issued the gift card or money transfer and try to cancel the transaction, even if the chances of getting a refund are low. Also, report the person to the FTC, the FBI, and the site where you encountered the dream boat that turned out to be a nightmare.