After years of searching for love in all the wrong places, you’ve finally hit the jackpot. Prince Charming is only a keystroke away, and you found him via social media or at an online dating site.
But is he really “the one”? Online dating scams are common, and they cost victims more than $50 million a year, says ThreatMetrix, a cybercrime prevention company.
They come in several forms. A story reported by the BBC last week is typical: A woman in England became involved online with a man who claimed to be a United Nations medic in Syria. The BBC said:
The woman, who wishes to remain anonymous, met the man on an online dating site and developed a “close friendship.”
In March he told her he was sending a package for her to keep, which he had been given by a Syrian sheik.
According to fake customs papers, the package supposedly contained 34 gold bars, which he was sending with his personal possessions.
She was sent a video of the gold bars supposedly being unpacked at Heathrow by customs officials.
She paid a £1,770 handling charge that was fake and also a £7,400 government tax bill that was also fake, to release the package.
She then agreed to pay £4,000 for a flight from Syria for him to get home.
The police were unable to find the man, who received the money through a company that wasn’t involved in the scam.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has begun writing letters to people deemed at risk for online dating scams, based on their record of sending money overseas, The Sydney Morning Herald reports.
Australians lost more than $25 million to such scams last year. Forty-three victims were taken for more than $100,000 each.
In another common twist, here in the U.S. it was recently reported that a photo of Montana Attorney General Tim Fox, probably taken from Facebook, was used in a phony profile on a dating website. An Indiana woman who was scammed sent her online love nearly $150,000 before she went to police.
So, how can you recognize that you’re being scammed by your online sweetheart?
- You’ve never seen them. The Morning Herald said they’ll avoid meeting you in real life or even in a video chat.
- They want you to migrate away from the platform, using email or instant messaging. “Many online dating sites have systems in place to detect scammers, so scammers will try and move the conversation away from the scrutiny of community platforms to a one-on-one interaction such as email or phone,” the Morning Herald said.
- Their profile is fake. Some are obvious, i.e., the photo is too gorgeous for words. In any case, you might be able to figure this out by using Google Search by Image, the ACCC says. “The pictures you were sent were most likely phony, lifted from other websites. The profiles were fake as well, carefully crafted to match your interests,” the FBI says.
- They know a lot about you and don’t share much about themselves, other than the “fact” that you two have so much in common and that you’re a match made in heaven.
- They eventually ask for money.
They might claim to have a medical emergency and need money to cover the expense. Or, they want to meet you in person, but need financial help from you to cover their travel. Or they’ve had a financial setback and “just” need a little help to get back on their feet.
Some scammers will engage victims in intimate conversations, then post the conversations along with photos and other identifying information on a website and demand $99 from the victim to take it down, the FBI says.
Others will send you checks to cash because, they say, they’re out of the country, or packages to forward. “In addition to losing your money to someone who had no intention of ever visiting you, you may also have unknowingly taken part in a money laundering scheme by cashing phony checks and sending the money overseas and by shipping stolen merchandise (the forwarded package),” the FBI said.
Some are merely trying to get you to provide personal information, such as bank accounts, credit card numbers and passwords, so they can rip you off.
The average loss in online dating scams is between $15,000 and $20,000, according to the FBI.
Ways to protect yourself
Obviously, you should keep an eye out for all of the warning signs we mentioned above. Also:
- Check the privacy settings on the social media networks you use to limit who can see your information.
- Avoid fly-by-night dating services. The big sites have systems in place to detect scammers. But be careful no matter what site you use. ThreatMetrix says 1 in 10 online dating profiles are scams.
- Don’t friend people on Facebook you don’t know.
- Don’t share personal information like credit card numbers and date of birth.
- If someone you’ve met recently via a dating website claims to have fallen in love with you, that’s a bad sign.
- If that person also claims to be living or traveling abroad, that’s another big indicator of fraud.
Now, I’m not suggesting that online dating is bad. In fact, I’ve seen a number of stories about couples who met via online dating services and have been happily married for a number of years. So if your mate passes the test and turns out to be the real deal, best wishes to you for a happy life together.
What are your thoughts on sweetheart scammers? Let us know in the comments below or on our Facebook page.
Karen Datko contributed to this post.