Avoiding a Romance Scam: What You Need to Know

Online Dating. Social media. Gaming apps. Email.

Millions of Americans use these media platforms daily to connect with friends, pass the time, and to find love. However, plenty of users have intentions that are less than pure.

Scam artists are everywhere, and they're constantly on the lookout for someone to con.

We've done the research, asked the experts, and put together this guide to help you and your loved ones quickly spot a romance scam before they leave you penniless.

How did it start?

Not too long ago, scammers were sending out mass emails claiming that you won the lottery, your PayPal account needed updating, or that friends needed donations to help their sick child. And it worked.

As time went on, however, these common scams were exposed as news stations, social media, and Dr. Phil warned online users to use caution (especially when clicking on links or responding to or sending money to people they didn't know). For the scammers, it was time to change their tactics and find new ways to con online users. Their attention turned to an upcoming media platform: online dating.

Today, online dating is a multi-billion dollar industry with millions of users and the most common hunting ground for scammers — although social media comes in at a close second.

Instead of sending out mass emails and hoping to trick a few unwary individuals, scammers moved to a more targeted approach: the romance scam.

What is a romance scam?

Romance scams don't usually start out with one person demanding money (if they did, they'd most likely be reported and booted off the site). Instead, the scammers opt to play the long game by earning their victims' trust over a period of months or even years.

A romance scam on online dating may vary from context to context, but the end motive is always the same. The scam artist is always seeking money from the victim (an actual dater), and will look for different methods and means to collect checks and payments prior to even meeting in person. Scammers may create elaborate stories, come up with "emergency" situations, or ask for a victim's credit card information, cash, funding for travel expenses, or wire transfers using a variety of tactics.
Beverly Friedmann

These scam artists invest their time and devote their full attention to their victims. They don't mind spending a few weeks listening to you talk about your favorite vacations or places to eat. They'll ask about your family and friends and side with you when there is drama. Eventually, you'll feel comfortable telling them the intimate details of your life.

As they build trust and develop the relationship, the scammer will periodically ask for financial help. It usually starts with them asking for the occasional $20 and eventually they will work their way up to asking for thousands.

Who is targeted?

As more and more people look for love online, the more opportunities there are for scammers to romantically swindle someone. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently revealed that the number of romance scams reported in 2018 was more than double than those reported in 2015.

While the median loss for people was around $2,600, the losses reported for those 70 and older is a heartbreaking $10,000.

Unfortunately, seniors are an ideal target for scammers. Seniors likely have a retirement fund in place, received an inheritance from their parents, or have inheritances saved for their children. Essentially they are the population that is likely to be more fiscally sound at this stage of life and in addition they might not be as aware as a younger population about how easy it is to falsify information online.
—Devon Jorge, Trillium Counselling

Although anyone can be targeted, the FBI revealed that the most common target for scammers is women over 40 who are divorced, widowed, and/or disabled.

Why do people fall for these scams?

Using an online dating site or app often requires daters to be semi-vulnerable; after all, you are letting thousands of people view your pictures and read about your likes, dislikes, personality, wants, and deal breakers in order to decide if they're interested. The whole thing can be pretty daunting.

Romance scammers prey on this vulnerability and use it to their advantage. As we stated earlier, scammers devote days and weeks building a relationship. They will constantly shower you with loving words and share personal (though likely false) stories from their own life. They'll send you gifts and talk about when you can be together. While they may seem sincere, it's all a part of their ruse to gain your trust. 

People on dating sites may unknowingly display that they are emotionally vulnerable or needing companionship in their profiles. When people identify that they are widowed or divorced, there is a possibility of emotional vulnerability that could be preyed on. People who are ending a relationship may struggle with their self-esteem. They are vulnerable as they may feel that they might not find love again, have anything to offer in another relationship, or that the dating pool doesn't have a lot of options later in life.
—Devon Jorge, Trillium Counselling

As the relationship gets more serious, the scammer will ask for intimate pictures or videos (generally these are later used against the victim) and will threaten to expose the victim if they don't comply with their demands. In this situation, many victims feel too embarrassed to tell anyone and refuse to report the scam to the authorities.

In 2018, the FTC received more than 21,000 reports about romance scams.

What are some common red flags?

Whether you're using an online dating site or an app, you always risk running into fake profiles created by scammers. To help you avoid these profiles here are eight indicators that you're dealing with a scammer and not a potential suitor:

🚩1. Seems like a perfect match

When filling out your profile, you mention you love to run, travel, and ride horses. A few days later, a message pops up from a suitor who lives in Australia, owns a ranch, and runs the occasional half-marathon. It seems like a dream come true, right? However, it could be a scammer and before you respond we suggest you take a step back and evaluate.

Many online scammers create new profiles based on the information you give and pretend to be the man or woman of your dreams. They conveniently seem to like all the same things you do, share similar thoughts on religion and politics, and their future plans perfectly match the dreams you unwittingly shared in your profile. They are great at starting a conversation and are more than happy to let you do all the talking.

🚩2. Professes love at first click

There's nothing worse than a distracted lover. This especially rings true to romance scammers. Once you respond to their initial message, the scammer will quickly try to establish a serious relationship. Their messages will be filled with pet names (sweetheart, love, dear, etc.) and they'll constantly shower you with compliments. This tactic is called “love bombing” and is used to manipulate people into spending more time with the scammer — and less time with others.

Being praised releases dopamine which just so happens to be the same chemical that is released when we fall in love. Flattery and sweet talk are just a few of the tools scammers keep in their back pocket to keep people from realizing they're being scammed.

🚩3. Provides inconsistent information

Scammers will often say things that are inconsistent with their dating profile or their social media. Perhaps on their profile, they mention they studied at a prestigious university but their messages are filled with typos and poor English. Or they say their birthday is in June but their Facebook profile says December. While these little inconsistencies might not seem like much, it is often the result of scamming multiple people and not being able to keep their stories straight.

🚩4. Wants to leave the dating/social media site ASAP

After the first few messages, the scammer will want to leave the site and start emailing from a personal account. The reason? While they're talking to you, they're also messaging hundreds of other people and if enough people report them, they'll be removed from the site. Leaving the site allows them to continue building the relationship without the worry that their scam will be interrupted.

It's a common tactic for a scammer to say their membership is ending and they'll lose their messaging abilities. Be wary if they want to switch to emailing or calling, especially if it's early on in the relationship.

🚩5. Has no digital footprint

If somebody doesn't have a Facebook profile, it's a little sketchy. But having a profile with zero information is even sketchier. Nothing says a fake profile quite like only having one or two photos (especially if they're generic background photos) and no previous posts.

Another indication that it's a scammer is seeing the same photo used over and over. Since the scammer most likely stole the picture from the internet, they won't have more than a few photos.

🚩6. Refuses to video chat

Moving the relationship from messaging to a video chat is every scammer's nightmare. What's even worse than that is an impromptu video call. If the scammer doesn't look like the picture they gave you (which is most likely the case), they'll come up with a number of excuses for why they can't call. They might say that their computer was stolen and they're using a library computer or the video on their laptop is broken and they don't have the money to get it fixed.

🚩7. Complains of a life full of drama

At the beginning of the relationship, scammers will typically ask for small amounts of money for seemingly simple reasons. Eventually, the stories will become more complicated and the amounts of money will go up. One woman found herself transferring well over $100,000 as the scam artist concocted a story about serving in the military, being stopped by customs officials, then arrested and needing help to pay for a lawyer.

It's not impossible to run into a string of bad luck, but if you ask the right questions and look into their stories, you'll notice that they start to sound like your favorite soap opera.

🚩8. Constantly asks for money

Romance scammers want one thing. Your money. They'll ask for money for a sick child or relative. They'll need money after they get unjustly arrested. They'll need money because they got mugged last week. They'll need money to visit you.

Romance scammers are extremely skilled at coming up with urgent situations where the only answer is money.

If you don't pay up, it's not likely the requests for money will stop. They may resort to blackmail, threaten violence, make you question your humanity, or even threaten a lawsuit.

How can you outsmart a romance scammer?

Before falling head-over-heels for your online match, it's wise to enter the relationship with a few precautions — as unromantic as that sounds, it's for the best.

We asked online dating experts for their advice on how daters can avoid getting caught up in a romance scam. Here's what they had to say.

1. Do some research

“Be your own private investigator by doing online searches to confirm your match's key information. If you're especially concerned, you can enlist the help of a background checking service. It's a way to confirm your love interest's name matches his or her photo, address, marital status, and social media profiles. It can also uncover if your date owns a gun, has financial problems, a violent criminal record or been issued quite a few speeding tickets, owes child support, has an arrest history or is married.

You can also try Google's reverse image search. Take a few minutes to search the profile's pictures, and if the reverse search shows up across a number of pages, it's highly likely that the person is being deceitful and is using someone else's images as his/her own.”
— Chris Vitale, Senior Manager at PeopleLooker

2. Keep them on the original site

“Keep all communication on the dating site for two to three weeks to see if their behavior is consistent. Next, set up two to three video chats to ensure they seem legitimate. Then, ask for their full name and DOB to run a background check on them. Most scammers won't make it past all of these safeguards and they'll ghost you for a new victim.”
— Dr. Wyatt Fisher, Founder of ChristianCrush.com

3. Follow your head

“If you want to outsmart a scammer, ask all the difficult questions. If a person is up to no good, the first red flag will be that he or she does not want to provide you with information. Limited information should leave questions in your mind and should trigger the feeling of something being off. Follow your gut, get an opinion from a third unbiased party, and do your research. Should things not add up, you've got your answer. I'm afraid you will have to go with your head on this one and not your heart.”
— Patricia Vercillo, Vice President of Operations at The Smith Investigation Agency and The Smith Training Centre

4. Get the opinion of a trusted friend

“Ask a trusted friend or family member to take a look and this prospective love interest's profiles online. Ask them to do some research, while you the user do your own research. I often say enlist a friend or family member because they are not involved personally and won't have the love blinders on like the actual user/victim does.”
— Alexis Moore, Cyberstalking Expert and Author of Surviving A CyberStalker

5. Meet in real life

“Don't keep your relationship online for too long; insist on meeting in person in a public place, like a coffee shop. Check your new contacts out by looking them up on social media and search engines. If you find your new date's Facebook page has a lot of group connections, but not many friends, it may not be a real person, but a scammer. Seek to meet your new date's friends, and get together with your friends. It's much harder to maintain a phony cover around a group of people.”
— Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D., (aka "Dr. Romance"), Psychotherapist and Author of Dr. Romance's Guide to Finding Love Today 

6. Ask for a spontaneous picture

“One thing you may want to do is ask them to take a picture of themselves holding up a sign with their name on it. In addition, ask for a number of pictures because generally when the scammers are stealing pictures of models from websites, they do not have many photographs. Ask for the picture to be at a particular place that you designate to further test them.”
— Steven Weisman, Professor at Bentley University, Author, and Blog Writer for Scamicide

What should you do if you think you're being scammed?

Navigating the waters of online dating is tough. It often requires finding a balance between being vulnerable but not gullible, trusting but not naive, empathetic but not improvident. It requires taking a leap of faith. Scammers take advantage of that. Whether you shared personal details about yourself, trusted them with intimate photos or videos, or sent them money to help in a difficult situation, they were just there for the money. 

It can be difficult to admit that the person you've been messaging for the past few months or years is actually a scammer, but it is better than being left completely penniless and heartbroken.

The best thing to do?

  • Block the scammer on your dating profile, social media, email accounts, phone number, etc.
  • Keep copies of your messages
  • Report the scammer to the dating site
  • Report the matter to your local law enforcement
  • File a complaint with the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center
  • Report the scam to the Federal Trade Commission

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