One of the many ways that criminals target victims is by preying on emotion. One of the most powerful emotions that we as humans experience, often causes us to ignore potential red flags and go against our common sense. That emotion is love.
In an age where it’s virtually impossible to go through a day without using the internet, it’s no surprise that a growing number of adults use online dating websites or apps to find love. With the increasing popularity of online dating, more and more people are finding love, but the opportunity for fraud also increases. In 2016, consumers lost more than $230 million, and because many victims are embarrassed to admit that they fell victim to this type of scam, those numbers are likely much, much higher.
A Romance Scam Begins with a False Persona
Romance scams, sometimes also referred to as catfishing, most commonly take place on dating websites or social media. However, there have been cases where a romance scam began with a phone call as a first introduction. To carry out this scam, romance scammers create a phony persona. They choose appealing photos of another person to present as themselves and design an entire life story to describe their background, personality, and romantic desires. In some cases, they take on the identities of real, trusted people like military personnel, aid workers, or professionals working abroad.
Forming the Relationship of a Lifetime
Using their fake persona, dating and romance scammers will express strong emotions toward their victims in a relatively short period of time. They’re likely to suggest moving the relationship off of the website where they first connected with their victim and move to a more private channel, such as by phone, email, WhatsApp, or instant messaging. They do this because most dating websites offer security features to pinpoint and remove scammers, and they know that they’re likely to be removed within a short period. Victims are often open to moving the conversation offsite. After all, they believe the connection to be valid and trusted because they met through a dating website, oblivious to the reality that it takes, on average, one week for a dating website to identify and remove a scammer.
To validate the “relationship” they’ve formed with their victim, a dating scammer will go to great lengths to prove their affection, keep your interest, and gain your trust. They may do this by professing their devotion, showering victims with gifts, pretending to book flights to visit, or sharing their deepest secrets and desires. Within a couple of months, the ongoing communication is likely to deceive the victim into feeling like they’re involved in the relationship of a lifetime. At this point, the scammer is then free to begin taking a more heavy-handed approach toward the ultimate goal of defrauding their victim to obtain money, gifts, or personal details that can be used for their gain.
Committing the Crime
Once they’ve gained trust and defenses are down, a romance scammer will subtly or directly request money or gifts from their victim. There are several common ways scammers work. For example, they may say that they need money for some personal emergency, like legal troubles, passport issues, to help a severely ill family member, a failed business, a run of bad luck, or mugging in the street. The possibilities are endless. They may also claim that they want to visit their victim in person, but lack the funds to do so. At this point, the victim is so smitten and in love that they lack their better judgment and send the requested funds or gifts, believing that they’re helping their love interest and securing their future together.
Clean up your browser and prevent future scams
How can I spot a romance scam?
Romance scammers spend a lot of time crafting their fake personas and likely have used the same persona to victimize several people before. Because of this, they can be tricky to spot at first. Here are some red flags that should indicate to you that the person you’re communicating with may not be who they claim to be:
- Includes only professional photos
- Indicates that they are a citizen of your country but are currently traveling abroad
- Contains inconsistencies, like disproportionate height and weight or the hair color shown doesn’t match the photos provided
- Content from their profile can be found word for word on other websites when searched online.
- When performing a reverse image search, results can be found from other websites.
- They profess affection very quickly.
- They ask to move the conversation offsite within only a few hours or days.
- They accidentally refer to you or themself using the wrong name.
- Content from their message can be found word for word on other websites when searched online.
What can I do to stay safe?
- Choose pay-based dating websites with a dedicated security team who work to monitor accounts for inconsistencies and traits/behaviors common in scammers.
- Keep your conversations with anyone new on the dating website for at least a week or until a comfortable level of trust has been built--whichever is longer.
- If a dating website contacts you to say that someone you were in contact with was removed for safety reasons, trust their judgment as they have many tools to see behind the scenes and do not take the decision to remove someone lightly.
- Use browser protection like Guardio to identify when a link a scammer who contacted you contains a phishing attempt.
- Activate account monitoring so that you’ll be alerted if a scammer has made your information public to other criminals on the deep web.
- Never, ever send money to someone you don’t already know in person, no matter how believable their story may be.
- Report to the dating website when someone requests money from you or causes you to feel suspicious of their identity.