Last year, 24,000 people lost $1 billion to romance scams in the US alone, with many more cases likely going unreported. These scams seriously affect both dating platforms and their users alike. For users, it can mean heartbreak and bankruptcy, as just one successful romance scam can steal millions. For dating platforms, meanwhile, failure to fend off scammers can lead to severe reputational losses.
How romance scams work
Scammers use dating sites to lure their victims by pretending to be prospective romantic partners. They create fake online profiles using fictional identities or data stolen from real people.
“The Internet makes this type of crime easy because you can pretend to be anybody you want to be. You can be anywhere in the world and victimize people,”—says the FBI.
The scam typically works like this:
- The scammer reaches out to a victim on a dating site or on social media.
- They build a seemingly trustworthy relationship.
- The scammer claims to be in some sort of an emergency and asks their digital lover for money.
Since the scammer needs their victim to lower their defenses, it might take over half a year of digital courtship before they first ask for money. Yet this is precisely what makes these types of scams particularly effective.
Romance scammers typically surround themselves with accomplices who pose as business partners, lawyers, or doctors. For instance, a notorious con-artist from the Tinder Swindler had a whole troupe of fake characters behind him, including a wife, child, business partner, and bodyguard. Other times, a whole group of organized criminals can band together, pretending to be a single person in search of love.
Dating scammers often target vulnerable members of society. For instance, elderly women who are divorced or widowed are usual targets
What are the most common scams on dating sites?
To recap, a dating scam typically works like this: the scammer reaches out to a victim, builds a trusting relationship, and only then asks for money. While this is a general pattern, there can be other variations of online romance scams.
Emergency schemes. This is the most common scam. Scammers come up with a fantastic story about how they adopted a child and need money to raise them—or, maybe they’re detained at some remote border crossing and now need to pay for a lawyer. While these stories might seem hard to believe, scammers manipulate their victims for months to make them swallow any lie.
Blackmail. Scammers can ask their victims to have a video call. During the call, they may pressure the victim to undress or perform other intimate acts. The scammer then claims to have made a video recording and threatens to make it public unless the victim sends money.
Money muling. This is a form of money laundering where criminals employ other individuals to move illicit funds. Scammers can send their victims money, mobile phones, or other valuable items and ask to resend them somewhere. This type of fraud is particularly dangerous for the victims’ safety as they may be inadvertently tangled into the financial dealings of an international criminal network.
Phishing. Scammers can send phishing links to their victims to steal their personal data. For instance, they can send a link purporting to lead to their social media page. In reality, the link directs to a malware website. Other cases can involve a scammer sending a link asking a victim to “verify their account”. Once the victim clicks, they are requested to submit their name, address, document numbers, and even credit card details. This data can be used to open a bank account or receive a loan under the victim’s name.
Romance baiting scams. This is a relatively new scheme that involves scammers encouraging victims to participate in an investment opportunity. For instance, scammers can pretend to be financially-independent women and, when asked how they made their fortune, will link to a shady crypto investment scheme. If traditional dating schemes tend to target older people, almost half of all losses to romance baiting scams come from people under the age of 35.
What are the signs of a romance scammer?
Romance scammers are experts in social manipulation. They deceive their victims by playing on emotions and creating likable profiles that speak to victims.
The Australian Competition & Consumer Commission describes several red flags of a romance scammer.
Profile inconsistencies. There can be inconsistencies in scammers’ profiles, i.e., they state that they’re from Canada but write in very poor English.
Quick love confessions. Romance scammers profess love very quickly, even after just a couple of conversations. They shower the victim with loving words like “you are my angel” and might even strike up conversations about marriage and kids.
Money requests. After gaining the victim’s trust, they ask for money to pay for a sudden emergency—for insance, a sick relative, funeral costs, business problems, etc. If a victim doesn’t send money straight away, their messages become more desperate, and loving words change to threats.
Fantastic stories. A scammer’s life can often sound like a soap opera, so it’s not uncommon for them to have some “angry business competitors that want to kill them”.
Living abroad. Scammers often claim to be traveling or working abroad in order to have an excuse to not meet victims in person.
Not keeping promises. Scammers always have an excuse for why they can’t travel to meet their victim, why they need more money, or why they can’t pay the money back.
Making conversations more private. Sometimes scammers suggest moving to a more private chat instead of the dating site to stay under the radar of moderators.
Can you spot a fake dating profile?
When it comes to dating platforms, it can be hard to distinguish genuine users from scammers. Here’s a game that can test out your ability to filter out potentially problematic customers. Some bios contain red flags, so keep your eye on their personal details.
Any reference to living persons is purely coincidental
How to avoid online dating scams
Here are a few things that can help avoid falling into an online dating trap.
Always consider the possibility that a match might be a scam. It’s a good idea to look beyond all the loving messages and focus solely on facts to determine if a potential partner is genuine.
Cross-check. Scammers can use photos from the internet or copy their bios from other websites and dating profiles. That’s why conducting an online search to cross-check the person’s name, photo, and email address can help.
Be wary of requests for money and personal data. The number-one red flag in online dating is if someone asks for money, bank card details, or copies of personal documents. Users should remember that scammers can do this in a very discreet way like asking for a copy of an ID card to buy a plane ticket for the user.
Seek advice from a trusted person and really listen. An experienced romance scammer might try to isolate their victim from friends and family or pressure them into making impulsive decisions alone.
How dating platforms can catch romance scammers
To protect their platforms from scammers, dating sites can introduce user verification. This isn’t a regulatory requirement, but it can help to filter out unwanted users. Here’s how verification can help dating platforms:
- Promote trust on the platform. Dating services will attract more customers if they’re known to be free of bots and scammers.
- Prevent account takeovers. Users won’t have their accounts and sensitive data stolen.
- Boost user engagement. A well-moderated space keeps toxicity and trolling to a minimum, yielding more customers.
Since users of dating platforms aren’t always familiar with verification, the process should be as smooth as possible in order to avoid scaring them away. Also, users might have concerns about the safety of data they submit during the procedure, which is why modern verification solutions store data on secure servers and protect it from unauthorized usage.
Here are four features that can help reduce fraud while keeping the conversion rates high.
- ID document verification—Security features and anti-photoshop checks help to ensure document validity. Platforms can also set age limits to keep underaged users out.
- Liveness and face match—Biometric checks ensure that the true document holder is present during verification and can detect multiple accounts.
- Behavioral fraud patterns detection—Device fingerprint analysis tracks suspicious user configurations, locations and IP address mismatches. This allows detecting if multiple people use one account, as scammers often do.
- Face authentication. This feature asks users to verify their identity when suspicious activity is detected, ensuring that their account hasn’t been stolen.
This sort of in-depth verification can take just 50 seconds and successfully detects face spoofers, users with stolen personal data, modified or unvalid documents, and other scammers.
How to report an online dating scammer
Reporting a scammer can lead to the platform blocking them and preventing their future activity. Here’s a quick guide on where and how to report scammers:
- When to report to a dating platform. f the user suspects that a profile is a scam, it’s enough to report them to the platform and provide any details regarding the suspicions.
- When to report to a financial institution. If the user has provided any financial information to someone on a dating site, they should immediately contact their bank, loan firm, or any other relevant financial institution, in addition to notifying the dating platform.
- When to report to an authority. It’s always a good idea to report scams to law enforcement or other government institutions responsible for fraud detection to stop the scammer from fooling other victims.
Please share this guide with other users of dating platforms so they don’t fall prey to romance scammers.