Protect Your Wallet – and Your Heart – From Online Dating Scams

In my day, parents were the ones worried about their kids meeting unsavory and unscrupulous people at parties or bars. Now, it’s often our kids who are worried about the same thing for us—but not at the bar, at online dating sites. Every year, millions of Americans visit dating websites hoping to find a connection…companionship…possibly even a soulmate. Because of Valentine’s Day, February can be a particularly lonely month if you don’t have a significant other.

Don’t be a victim
While many people on these sites are normal folks looking for love or friendship (well, as “normal” as any of us are anyway!), cybercriminals lurk as well, trolling dating sites and looking to line their pockets with money bilked from the vulnerable. An elderly Canadian woman was recently scammed out of $100,000 by a man she met online following the death of her husband. The man claimed to be a civil engineer working in China, and wooed the woman—who had never actually met him face-to-face—into sending hundreds of thousands of dollars to support his various work “projects.” She even sent money so he could fly back to the states and propose to her; of course, he took the money and never showed.

Stories like this are all too common. While the FBI reports the most common targets of dating scams are women over 40 who are divorced, widowed, and/or disabled, every age group, gender and demographic is at risk. Scammers usually claim to be Americans working abroad or serving overseas in the military.

How it works
You’re contacted on the dating site by someone who shows interest in you, probably throwing a couple of “likes” or “winks” your way. For weeks, even months, you chat back and forth with one another, over time forming a seemingly romantic connection. You may even receive flowers or other gifts to gain your trust. And then it happens—your newfound “love interest” asks you for money, usually by wire transfer or access to a credit card. Once you send the money, either he or she keeps asking for more—for increasingly strange reasons such as being in jail or needing emergency surgery—or disappears altogether and moves on to their next victim.

Red flags to look out for
The FBI and Consumer Affairs warn to watch out for these dating site flags that are redder than the biggest Valentine heart.

Sending you pictures that look like a supermodel. Be wary of pictures that look like a glossy from a modeling agency or glamour magazine. Another sign of a scammer is profuse professions of instant feelings of love, despite only having just started communicating with each other.

Displaying wealth, like mansions and exotic cars. By creating an illusion of their own wealth, they can more easily convince you that you’re simply “loaning” money to them that, for some bizarre reason, they can’t immediately access. The photos are usually fake or stolen from someone else.

Poor grammar. Messages from scammers are often riddled with poor grammar, broken English, odd word choices and strange sentence structure.

Avoiding meeting in person. Many scammers are operating out of foreign countries, despite profiles saying they live nearby. Their photographs are also likely of someone else, and that would be a tough sell in person. When you propose a face-to-face meeting, he or she will come up with some excuse like they’re traveling overseas or facing some long-distance emergency.

Asking to leave the site quickly. Moving offsite before launching a scam reduces the chance that the crook will be discovered or reported. He or she will quickly ask you to switch to communicate outside the dating site, either by text or e-mail. Maybe this should be last on the list?

Keep your wallet shut
Do not send money through any wire transfer service or give your credit card or bank account information to someone you met online, regardless of why they ask for it. Scammers come up with any number of bogus excuses for needing money, including medical emergencies, hospital bills for a sick child, passports or airplane tickets (to come see you of course!), losses from a financial setback, or bail money. Once you send the money, the chances of recovering it or ever meeting the person are slim.

What to do if you’re a victim
If you believe you fell prey to an online dating scam, the FBI recommends that you report it to the dating site and also file a report to the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center. While you will still be out the money, reporting the scam may help others from becoming the scammer’s next hapless victim.

References: FBI, CBS News, Consumer Affairs