- Online dating scams have seen a significant surge in recent years, with nearly 70,000 reported victims in 2022.
- Scammers employ various tactics, including sextortion, phishing, overseas romance scams, and cryptocurrency schemes, to extort money from their victims.
- Older adults, especially those who are widowed or divorced, are at the greatest risk for online dating scams.
- Red flags for online dating scams include suspicious online profiles, rushing emotional connection, far-fetched or elaborate stories, avoidance of meeting in person, and requests for money.
- Knowledge and vigilance are the best defenses against online dating scams.
Online dating has transformed the way we find love and companionship in the modern age. Yet, as online dating continues to grow in popularity, so do the instances of online dating scams. Arm yourself with the knowledge you need to protect yourself and your loved ones from a broken heart and a broken piggy bank.
The Unexpected Dangers of Online Dating
Online dating has emerged as a valuable tool for adults, offering opportunities to expand social networks and exercise greater control over their dating lives. However, with these expanded networks comes greater risk of exposure to scams.
Scammers use social media and online dating websites to financially exploit their targets. This is especially common with middle-aged and older adults who’ve just started using online dating platforms.
Scams Are on the Rise
Western societies have seen a dramatic rise in online dating scams in the past decade. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), nearly 70,000 people reported falling victim to romance scams, resulting in a staggering $1.3 billion in losses in 2022. The median loss per victim was $4,400.
These data points underscore the need for increased awareness and vigilance when engaging in online dating as the threat of online dating scams continues to evolve and expand.
Common Online Dating Scam Formats
The rise of online dating has brought with it a surge in scams that prey on individuals’ emotions and vulnerabilities. These scams come in various forms, but some of the most common and insidious scams include:
- Blackmail using sensitive photos (“sextortion”). One of the most distressing forms of online dating scams is sextortion, where scammers manipulate victims into sharing intimate photos and then use those images to extort money.
- Phishing and malware-infected websites. Some scammers create fake dating websites or profiles to lure victims into sharing personal information or downloading malicious software.
- Overseas romance. Scammers pose as charming individuals from overseas, making it difficult for victims to verify their identities. These scammers build deep emotional connections with their targets, only to request money for various reasons, such as travel expenses or medical emergencies.
- Online cryptocurrency investment. Scammers pose as potential romantic partners and convince victims to invest in cryptocurrency schemes that turn out to be fraudulent.
To avoid falling victim to these scams, be cautious when sharing personal information, especially explicit content, and always verify the authenticity of the people you interact with online.
Are You At-Risk for Online Dating Scams?
The threat of online dating scams continues to evolve and expand, impacting individuals across various age groups and backgrounds. However, research suggests that scammers often target specific demographic groups. Understanding your risk is essential for staying safe in the digital dating landscape.
Age and Marital Status
Middle-aged and older adults, particularly those who are widowed or divorced, are prime targets for online dating scams. These individuals may be seeking companionship and emotional connections, making them more susceptible to scammers who offer love and affection.
Income and Financial Stability
Scammers often prey on people with higher incomes or financial stability, as they may have more resources to exploit. Retirees and those with disposable incomes often make attractive targets.
Personality Traits and Attachment Style
Research suggests that having certain personality traits might place you at greater risk for being taken advantage of by online scammers.
These traits include:
- High neuroticism
- A strong desire for romantic relationships
- A penchant for excitement
- Susceptibility to addiction
- Low self-esteem or lack of confidence
Recent research revealed that your attachment style might also influence your risk for being swindled online. Researchers surveyed over 1,000 adults and found that those with an anxious attachment style, which is often associated with clinginess in relationships, were more likely to be catfish targets. Additionally, individuals with both high avoidance and high anxiety were particularly vulnerable.
Recent Life Changes and Social Isolation
Major life changes, such as retirement or the loss of a spouse, can leave individuals seeking new experiences and relationships, making them more open to online dating. Additionally, social isolation, exacerbated by events like the COVID-19 pandemic, can lead to loneliness and a desire for connection, overriding caution.
While online dating scams can affect anyone regardless of gender, women may be more vulnerable to certain scams like sextortion.
Online Dating Scam Red Flags
Romance scammers are skilled manipulators, using common lies and tactics to deceive victims. These can include fake identities, fabricated stories, and promises of love and commitment.
Fake Online Personas
Online dating scammers are adept at creating elaborate fake online personas to deceive their victims. They meticulously craft these identities to appear genuine and appealing. This is sometimes referred to as “catfishing,” though catfishers don’t always extort their victims for money.
It’s common for online scammers to lie about their name, location, profession, physical appearance, and lifestyle. For example, they typically use stolen photos from social media or photo stock websites to appeal to their victims. It’s also common for scammers to try to establish credibility by posing as doctors, military personnel, or successful entrepreneurs.
A recent study used advanced linguistic analysis to examine 500 fraudulent profiles and compared them to 500 legitimate users on popular dating websites. The analysis revealed that scammers strategically emphasize love, romance, and commitment in their profiles. They use specific words and phrases to create an illusion of a deep and genuine connection.
Look out for these red flags while reading dating profiles:
- A limited number of photos
- Photos that look commercial or like professional stock photos
- Vague details about the user’s interests and lifestyle
- Claims that the user is temporarily working overseas
- Emphasis on love, romance, and commitment
Source: Federal Trade Commission
Scammers manipulate victims by creating deep emotional bonds over time, exploiting their desires for companionship and ultimately extorting money from them.
Scammers will lie and craft elaborate stories to create a sense of urgency and devotion, which makes it easier for them to request money later on. According to the FTC, scammers often play on victims’ emotions by lying about:
- Sharing the same interests and values as the victim
- Wanting to get married, despite never having met in person
- Being sick, hurt, or in jail
- Caring for someone who is sick, hurt, or in jail
- Being deployed for the military or another form of work
- Wanting to do the victim a favor
The linguistic research analysis discussed above also supports these trends. The researchers noted that scammers use specific words to create a sense of hope for a future as a couple. They craft narratives that make victims believe in a shared future to deepen emotional ties.
Avoiding Meet-Ups and Video Calls
Be wary of someone who rushes a deep emotional connection, but repeatedly avoids meeting you in person or on video. Scammers often try to stick to direct messages on social media, WhatsApp, Google Chat, or Telegram.
It’s common for scammers to devote hours to connecting with victims online. But when it’s time to hop on a video call, they suddenly have excuses for why they can’t connect. For example, they might claim to have poor internet connection, a broken camera, or a similar excuse.
Scammers will often craft elaborate stories as to why they can’t meet you in real life. For example, they may claim to be working on an offshore oil rig, in the military, or in another situation that prevents them from meeting in person.
Asking for Money or Financial Assistance
Dating scammers employ various tactics to extract money from their victims. As the relationship progresses, scammers fabricate stories of financial hardship, medical emergencies, or sudden crises, appealing to the victim’s sympathy and desire to help. These scams often involve multiple requests for financial support, gradually escalating the amount.
Scammers sometimes use less direct methods of extorting money from their victims. A common scheme involves the scammer promising to send their victim a valuable package, but claiming that the victim will need to pay the customs fees, taxes, or delivery charges. The package never arrives and the scammer disappears once they’ve received the victim’s funds.
In more complex and insidious scams, scammers may involve victims in illegal activities, such as fraud or money laundering. They might manipulate victims into opening bank accounts or transferring funds on their behalf, often under the guise of a romantic relationship.
Scammers may ask victims to send payment through payment apps, wire transfers, cryptocurrency, bitcoin, gift cards, or other means. At the end of the day, the scammer walks away with the funds, and the victim is left emotionally and financially devastated.
Online Dating Scam Stories
Real-life stories illustrate the lengths scammers will go to in their quest to deceive victims. The following examples not only put a human face on the trends and statistics we’ve covered, but also serve as cautionary tales for those navigating the world of online dating.
In a heart-wrenching tale featured on local Los Angeles KTLA News, Lynn, a widow seeking companionship, fell victim to a romance scam. Loneliness led Lynn to sign up for Jdate, an online dating site, where she met Hubert, a supposed successful businessman from Germany. Hubert quickly professed love and dreams of a future together, but every attempt Lynn made to meet in person was met with excuses.
As the money she lost to Hubert reached $120,000, Lynn eventually realized that she had been duped, emphasizing the dangers of online romance scams. Lynn’s story highlights that scammers often target women over 40 who are widowed, divorced, elderly, or disabled.
A Massachusetts man named Scott developed a seemingly genuine online relationship with a scammer he met on a dating website. The scammer, discussing cryptocurrency trading, persuaded Scott to invest $300,000 through a convincing investment website. Despite believing he was making profits, Scott couldn’t withdraw his funds, falling victim to a type of investment fraud called a “pig butchering” scam.
Scott’s ordeal showcases the rise of cryptocurrency-centered scams in online dating. Cryptocurrency-centric scams skyrocketed from reported losses of $907 million in 2021 to over $2.5 billion in 2022.
Pat, an 84-year-old widow, shared her experience with a local Indianapolis news station. After becoming a widow in 2020, Pat turned to an older adult dating website for companionship. She met Lewis, a man who convinced her to send him checks totaling $98,547 for his supposed construction business in Montreal.
Lewis often promised to visit her and even sent her a photo of a plane ticket, but it was all part of the scam. Neither the ticket nor Lewis ever showed. Pat’s story underscores the emotional distress caused by romance scams and the importance of remaining cautious while seeking love online.
The FBI Takes On Online Dating Scammers
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) plays a crucial role in combating romance scams. The FBI advises that you take precautions, verify the identities of online contacts, and be cautious when sharing personal and financial information with anyone you meet online.
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act shields online platforms, including dating sites, from liability for user-generated content. Recognizing this issue, Match Group recently launched a public awareness campaign to educate users about red flags.
The FBI actively investigates and pursues legal action against romance scammers. While the anonymity of the internet can make it challenging to track down these criminals, the FBI’s works to deter potential scammers and help bring justice to victims.
Protect Yourself and Your Loved Ones from Online Dating Scams
Online dating doesn’t have to be intimidating. Use the following tips to stay safe while looking for love online.
Protecting yourself from online dating scams requires vigilance, skepticism, and some proactive steps.
Our best tips:
- Confirm who you’re speaking to. One of the most effective ways to protect yourself is to verify the identity of the person you’re talking to. Video calls and reverse image searches can help confirm that the person matches their profile.
- Proceed with caution. Be cautious when sharing any personal information with someone you’ve met online. Never send money to someone you’ve only met online.
- Pace yourself. Take your time getting to know someone before becoming emotionally invested. Be skeptical of anyone who rushes into a deep emotional connection or avoids meeting in person.
- Trust your gut. Take a step back to evaluate someone’s claims and intentions when someone seems too good to be true, or if their stories seem inconsistent. Ask yourself how you would advise a friend who shared a similar experience with you.
- Bring in outside opinions. Consult with friends or family about your online relationships. This is especially important if you’re exchanging personal information or if the person has asked you for financial support.
Protecting Loved Ones
The best way to protect your loved ones from online dating scams is to practice prevention. Check on older loved ones who live alone, are socially isolated, or who have recently lost their spouse.
While it’s often challenging to recover funds already spent, involving family members can stop scams in their tracks. If an older loved one falls victim, family members can seek temporary guardianship through a court order to freeze bank accounts and protect their assets.
If you suspect you’re dealing with a scammer, cease all communication with them immediately. Report the incident to local law enforcement and submit a fraud complaint to the Federal Trade Commission.
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Remember, knowledge is your best defense against online dating scams. By understanding the dangers, recognizing common lies, and following safety tips, you can protect yourself and your loved ones from falling victim to romance scams.
We encourage you to share this information with friends and family to create a safer online dating environment. And if you’re looking for support and resources on maintaining healthy relationships, eDrugstore has you covered.
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Shelby is a public health professional with research and field experience in sexual and reproductive health. She holds a Master of Public Health (MPH) and is a Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES).