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Could Your Perfect Match Be a Scammer?
While you might think you’d never fall for a dating scammer, fraudsters are flooding online dating sites for one reason: It’s easier than you think to scam unsuspecting daters.
According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), financial losses due to online romance fraud hit a record $547 million in 2021 [*]. That’s an increase of about 80% compared to 2020. However, monetary losses alone can’t capture the significant emotional impact of being a romance scam victim.
You deserve to find companionship safely — online and in-person. In this guide, we’ll highlight how online dating scams work, the warning signs to look out for, and how to avoid becoming a victim.
How Do Online Dating Scams Work?
Online dating scams — also known as romance scams — are imposter scams in which criminals use dating sites, apps, or social media to trick you into giving them money or sensitive information such as your account passwords or Social Security number (SSN).
Most romance scams follow a similar pattern to other types of online scams. Here’s how they typically work:
- A cybercriminal sets up a fake profile on a dating app or website.
- The criminal then connects with a potential victim, initiates a conversation, and starts establishing a relationship.
- Romance scammers often move fast during this phase and focus on gaining their victims’ trust by saying that they love them. Scammers typically ask to move the conversation off of a dating platform and onto WhatsApp (in case their account gets flagged and shut down).
- In many cases, the scam suitor will claim to be overseas or too far away to meet in person “at this time.”
- After gaining a victim’s trust, the scammer will either make up a story to justify asking for money or gift cards, request personal information that can be used for identity theft, or even blackmail the victim with sensitive photos that they are able to supply (depending on the specific scam).
- Once the scam is complete or the criminal has gotten as much money as possible out of the victim, the scammer will disappear and delete their profile.
Of all the scams that use social engineering, online dating fraud can be the most devastating. The victim is not only left in potential financial ruin and at risk of identity theft — but also heartbroken and deflated.
The Dangers of Online Dating & Top Scams
- Extortion scams
- Military romance scams
- Online dating cryptocurrency investment scams
- The “overseas” developer, doctor, or architect scam
- Sketchy links on dating sites (malware)
- Inheritance scams
- Romance scammers asking for money
- Dating site code verification scams
- Money mules
- Fake online dating sites
The pandemic has led to an increase in online dating scams as more people look to build connections on sites and apps. While older adults typically report losing the most money to online romance scams, all age groups are at risk [*].
Here’s how you can identify and avoid some of the most common dating scams:
“Catfishing” occurs when a scammer creates a fake identity or persona on a dating site or social media platform — usually by stealing photos of someone very attractive. (The term originated from a 2010 film and subsequent MTV reality show called Catfish, based on people who built online relationships but never met in person.)
The motivation behind a catfishing scheme can vary. Some scammers want money or “gifts” while others are phishing for personal information that they can use for identity theft. Others are only trying to cause emotional harm and will even continue the romance scam for months or years. This is what makes these types of scams so dangerous and difficult to recognize.
For example, Yvonne Costales reported to Fox 4 KDFW that she thought she’d found a new love interest but had actually fallen for a scammer's lies [*]. The scammer, who called himself “Robert” sent her messages daily and made plans to meet (but always canceled at the last minute).
Watch: How one woman almost fell for a catfishing scammer online →
After that, Robert followed the same pattern as other online dating scammers. He quickly told Yvonne that he was “starting to fall in love with her” and then fabricated a story about an accident he had, asking her to send him money to help.
In almost every case, someone asking you for money before meeting in person is a warning sign of a scam. Luckily, Yvonne saw the warning signs and broke off the relationship.
Pro tip: Run a Google reverse image search to see if your “match” is using stolen photos. If their profile photos come up attached to someone else’s social media profile (or are photos from a magazine), you can be sure they’re trying to scam you.
2. Extortion scams (i.e., “sextortion”)
Sextortion scams occur when scammers blackmail you with sensitive photos or videos that you’ve provided to them. These intimate activity scams typically start with the sextortionist befriending victims on social media sites like Snapchat.
The scammer will claim to be living abroad but still wanting to pursue an intense courtship. Eventually, they’ll ask to talk over video but then claim their webcam isn’t working. During the call, they’ll typically flatter and persist until the victim undresses or performs an intimate act — all recorded on video (unbeknownst to the victim).
After the call, the fraudster will reveal their true intent and demand money, claiming that they’ll post the sensitive videos online and share with people on social media — including the victim’s friends and family. Unfortunately, sending money won’t be enough; scammers will often continue to threaten their victims for as long as they can.
To stay safe, make sure you know who you’re talking to before engaging in any intimate activity online. The best approach is to assume that anything you say or share online could be shown to your closest family members.
🎯 Related: Snapchat Scams: Don’t Fall For These 7 Dirty Tricks →
3. Military romance scams
Many romance scammers claim to be active military service members deployed (or about to be deployed) overseas. Military romance scams provide the perfect cover story because it means the scammer can avoid meeting in person.
A military romance scammer will create a false persona using stolen photos of a current or past member of the military. They’ll often claim to be in high-risk situations or part of a “special ops” team, which restricts their ability to share details about themselves. Or, they’ll claim to be near retirement with older children to look after, or say they were widowed under sad circumstances.
But once you’re hooked, the scam starts.
During their “demployment,” the fraudster will start to ask for money to help cover expenses like food and shelter, or to pay for “early retirement.” They’ll use your lack of knowledge about military protocol to fool you into sending them wire transfers or cryptocurrency.
These military romance scams are so common that the U.S. Army has created a fact sheet to help people avoid scams instigated by supposed military members serving overseas.
🎯 Related: 17 Warning Signs of a Military Romance Scammer →
4. Online dating cryptocurrency investment scams
In 2021, the FTC found that one of the most costly romance scams involved getting people to buy into fake cryptocurrency investments [*].
In this scheme, scammers build trust with the victim and then start to discuss their interest in cryptocurrencies. They’ll show off the massive “returns” they’ve gotten and then offer to help their victims do the same.
The scam starts when the fraudster sends you a link to a “special” cryptocurrency exchange platform that promises high returns with little risk. They’ll even show you “live” charts of your investment increasing. But when you try to withdraw money, you’ll either be asked to pay a massive tax bill beforehand, or the site will shut down and the scammer will disappear.
Watch: How one woman lost $390,000 to a dating cryptocurrency scam →
Unfortunately, while victims are initially guided to open a legitimate account, the “special” platform link is actually a digital wallet belonging to the scammer. You lose any cryptocurrency you send to them forever.
5. The “overseas” developer, doctor, or architect
The overseas professional scam is a different version of the military romance scam. In this scheme, a fraudster claims to be a doctor, developer, contractor, or architect who is located overseas (or about to head overseas).
This situation gives them the perfect reason for why they can’t meet in person. Additionally, holding these types of jobs helps the scammer build trust quickly, as their victim views the scammer as “professional” and “successful”.
But once you start a relationship with them, they’ll quickly end up in trouble and in need of your help (financially).
Here are a few of the common ways these romance scammers will try to get you to send them money:
- A “once in a lifetime” investment opportunity. The scammer will claim to have access to a special investment opportunity and either wants to cut you in, or needs your help with upfront costs.
- Help accessing their bank accounts. They’ll claim that some issue with their bank doesn’t allow them to access their funds overseas and ask you to send them money to “help” until they can get it sorted out.
- Medical support for a family member back home. In this scheme, they’ll claim to have children or family members back home in need of help. But again, their money is tied up overseas and they need you to pay for their current emergency.
In all of these scams, they’ll promise to pay you back. But any money you send will disappear. This was the case in the example of “Darlene” who lost over $500,000 supporting a man she met on a dating site when he supposedly relocated to Turkey for his job as an architect [*].
These scams might seem obvious, but it’s easy to miss the red flags — especially if you’re emotionally invested in the relationship.
6. Sketchy links on dating sites (malware)
Some romance scammers don’t try to trick you into giving up your personal information and instead try to get you to download malware. This is a virus that spies on what you do on your devices and can even record passwords and send them to the scammer.
These scams are most common on hookup sites that promise a quick sexual fling. A scammer will typically send you a link to a site that’s designed for meeting other singles. When you sign up, you’ll quickly get messages from the accounts of attractive singles asking to hook up.
You’ll then be prompted to either pay a subscription fee or will receive links that infect your device with malware.
Malware scams can happen on legitimate dating sites and even on social media as well. Always be cautious before clicking on any unfamiliar link or downloading an attachment. And for added protection, install antivirus software with malware protection on all your devices.
7. Inheritance scams
This scenario involves a dramatic event. The cybercriminal supposedly needs to marry in order to inherit millions of dollars or a large sum in gold. The marriage is presented as a requirement of the will. If a woman is the scammer, she lets the victim know that she can’t remove the gold from where she lives because she can’t pay the duty or marriage taxes.
The scammer will build up a rapport with the victim during this process. Then, they’ll ask the victim to send them money for a flight so that they can bring the gold or inheritance to the victim’s country.
If the victim sends the money, the scammer disappears and never arrives.
8. Romance scammers asking for money
While some of the scams mentioned involve dramatic scenarios, there are many ways that scammers ask for money. Usually, the scammer will have spent time building your trust by sharing a great deal of personal information and telling you they’re “falling in love.”
Once they think you’re hooked, a scammer will try to get you to send them money in several different ways. Here are a few common scams to watch out for:
- They need money to stay in touch. They’ll ask you for help to buy a laptop or pay for bills like their internet service so they can stay in contact.
- They want to come visit. The scammer claims they need you to help cover the costs of buying a plane ticket or other expenses to visit you.
- Their family needs your help. They might request money for medical treatment for themselves or a family member.
- They need you to “cover them” until they get paid. The fraudster will claim their employer has paid them in postal money orders, and they need you to cash the money orders and wire transfer the money back. Unfortunately, the money orders are forged, so the bank reverts the money order but not the wire transfer.
There’s no good reason to send money to someone you’ve never met in person, even if they promise to pay you back.
🎯 Related: Check Deposit Scams: Are You Liable for a Bad Check? →
9. Dating site code verification scams (2FA scams)
Two-factor authentication (2FA) is an additional online security feature that you can enable on your online accounts that requires a special code along with your password and login credentials. But scammers trying to access your online accounts have started using dating sites to scam victims into providing them with your 2FA codes.
In this scam, a fraudster starts a relationship with you on a dating site or app. Eventually, they’ll start complaining that an account isn’t working for them (email, social media, dating site, etc.).
They’ll ask if they can send the 2FA code to you instead. In reality, they’re trying to hack you and the 2FA code you send to them is for one of your accounts.
In another version of this scam, someone claiming to be from a dating site like Tinder will message you and ask you to “Verify” your account. They’ll send you a link to a site that will ask you to provide personal details like your name, address, email, SSN, and even financial information.
But the email, link, and site are all fake. And any information you provide goes directly to a scammer.
10. Money mules
Most Americans don’t set out to be involved in money laundering schemes. Instead, what happens is that scammers trick people into laundering money unknowingly.
Here’s how the scam works:
- After building a relationship with their target, the scammer will send them money and ask their victim to purchase gift cards, foreign currencies, or cryptocurrencies for them.
- Eventually, they’ll ask the victim to open a bank account and send and receive packages for them as a favor.
- While all of this seems legitimate, the victim has unknowingly become a “money mule” and could even be liable for criminal charges related to laundering.
In one example, a woman named Glenda told the FBI that she had fallen in love with an online scammer claiming to be an American citizen living in Nigeria [*]. He asked Glenda for help leaving the country and started sending her electronics to pawn for him. He then got her to deposit the cash in a bank account she opened for him.
In 2015, she pleaded guilty to two federal crimes.
11. Fake online dating sites
Fake dating sites claim to provide real meetups and online dating services, but instead are either underpopulated or filled with scammers.
For instance, a common scam is for the fake site to request that you create a profile, but they’re really mining your information. They’ll ask for financial details or information that is commonly used for security questions for legitimate accounts (your mother’s maiden name, first pet, etc.).
Sometimes the sites will offer a “perk” or “premium” feature for completing a survey that asks these questions. Always be cautious about how much information you share online.
How To Identify a Romance Scammer: 12 Warning Signs
While you likely have a good sense about what’s considered normal online behavior, these cybercriminals excel at building trust. Fortunately, the more you understand their tactics, the easier it is to spot a romance scam.
Here are the warning signs of a romance scammer you should be on the lookout for:
- They live far away. Pay attention to the scammer’s background. A scammer often poses as someone stationed overseas or living too far away to meet their victim. Their reasoning will be well-rehearsed and intriguing. Some common background stories include working on an oil rig, being a doctor in an international organization, serving in the military, or working in the construction business overseas.
- They move the relationship towards romance quickly. They want to gain your trust fast before you catch onto the scam. They may claim to have fallen in love with you or ask you to marry them sooner than is typical. Other signs to look for are extravagant compliments or claims that they feel a special bond with you very early in the relationship.
- They quickly try to move your conversations off the online dating app or website. Online dating websites and apps have safeguards to protect users from scams. Therefore, con artists want to move to other platforms without these protections in place or try to communicate with you using your personal contact information — including text, email, or phone number. Some common excuses include, “My membership is about to expire,” “It’s easier to text,” or “I don’t like this app.”
- Their profile doesn’t contain a lot of information or photos, or it appears to be “too perfect.” Most people post several photos of themselves. However, scammers are more likely to have less information available, or use photos that look like they’re out of a magazine.
- Messages or profile information may be borrowed from other profiles. Often scammers don’t write the texts or messages themselves. They may copy information from other profiles or websites. When reading messages and profiles, pay attention to anything that seems too generic; and take note if the grammar is unusually poor, or the message looks like it has been copied and pasted.
- They always have an excuse for why they can’t meet in person or by video. Scammers want to remain anonymous. So even though they may promise to meet up or do a video call, they’ll either break their promise or have a reason for why they can’t do a video call, such as “technical difficulties.”
- They ask a lot of questions about you. The more they know about you, the easier it is for them to execute their scam or manipulate you with a social engineering attack.
- They have a limited (or no) digital footprint. While some people do try to limit what’s available about themselves online, you can usually find information nonetheless. A scammer who created a fake profile won’t have any (or much) online personal or professional data. If you’re having trouble finding any trace of the person, treat this as a potential red flag.
- Their story is inconsistent. Sometimes scammers work as a group, so there may be several people operating as the fake person. If parts of the person’s story don’t make sense or contradict other information they’ve told you, it may be a scam.
- Their life is overly dramatic. This approach is common in catfish scams. The scammer creates elaborate stories filled with family tragedies or major accidents that make you sympathize with them. These tales also make it “understandable” that they can’t meet in person yet.
- They ask for money. If you’ve never met the person and they’re asking for money, be wary. For instance, they may ask for money to cover travel expenses to meet you, buy a laptop so they can keep talking with you, help with a personal emergency or medical event, pay a gambling debt, or for an investment opportunity like cryptocurrency.
- They request specific types of payment. Scammers typically request a particular type of payment such as gift cards, reload cards, or wire transfers. These payments are nearly impossible to reverse and hard to trace. This helps them stay anonymous and get cash fast.
Were You the Victim of an Online Dating Scam? Here’s What To Do
If you think you were the victim of a romance scam, first confirm if your identity has, in fact, been compromised.
Once you’re sure you’re dealing with scammers, break off all contact with them and follow these steps:
- Secure any account you may have given them access to with new passwords and 2FA.
- Contact your bank or credit card company and tell them you’ve been a victim of fraud.
- Remove the scammer from your social media accounts and tell people following you to block them.
- Report the fraud to the FTC at ReportFraud.ftc.gov and let the dating site know about them.
- If you have any information that could help lead to an arrest, file a police report with your local law enforcement.
- Contact any company from which you may have bought a gift card for the scammer and see if the company can refund your money.
- Take further steps to secure your identity and recover from fraud.
How To Safely Find Love (and Avoid Online Romance Scams)
Even though there are romance scammers out there, you can still safely find a genuine relationship through online dating. Understand the common ways that romance scammers try to trick you. Then, secure your online identity by following these tips:
- Stick to reputable dating sites and apps.
- Don’t give out your phone number, messaging app handles, or too much personal information until you can verify the dater’s identity (in person, ideally).
- Use unique photos for your dating profiles so scammers can’t find your social media profiles.
- Get a Google Voice number just for dating to keep your phone number safe.
- Research any potential match to make sure they have a real online footprint and aren’t using stolen photos. (A Google or TinEye reverse image search of their profile picture is essential.)
- Move slowly and don’t let anyone pressure you into doing something that you don’t feel comfortable doing.
- Don’t click on links or download attachments that are sent via dating sites or app DMs.
- Pay attention to your instincts and look for red flags — like constant drama, requests for money or intimate photos, and inconsistent personal information.
- If you do meet in person, make sure to meet in a public place, arrive separately, and let someone you trust know when and where (and with whom) you’re going.
Don’t let scammers ruin your chance to find a true connection. Stay safe, do your own research, and take your time. And for added security, sign up for Identity Guard’s identity theft protection service.