Every year, millions of Americans visit dating websites hoping to find companionship, and possibly even true love. Because of Valentine's Day, February can be a particularly lonely month for some. Scammers know this, and use it to take advantage of this normal human need for connection.
If you, or someone you know, is active on a dating site, there are ways to help protect yourself while looking for that special someone. It's especially important to pay attention to any red flags. Bottom line, if someone seems too good to be true, he or she probably is. Trust your intuition if something or someone seems off.
Don't be a victim
While many people on these sites are normal folks looking for love or friendship, cybercriminals lurk on them as well, trolling dating sites and looking to line their pockets with money bilked from the vulnerable.
An elderly Canadian woman was once 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 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.
Heed these red flags
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.
Profiles without images or photos you need to click on. Be wary of profiles without a photo. And, if someone sends you a photo that you need to click on, don't. It could contain a virus or ransomware that will download onto your computer or device. Keep antivirus software running and up-to-date on all of your devices.
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. Don't do it.
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.
Steps to take if you're a victim of a scam
If you believe that you have fallen prey to an online scammer, the FBI recommends that you report it to the dating site and also file a report with the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center. You can also call your local police department and file a fraud complaint with the Federal Trade Commission.
If you have given out your account information, or wired/sent money, it's important that you also contact your financial institution immediately.