But that’s actually the truth. This kind of fraud has been on the rise lately. In 2016, nearly 15,000 people in the U.S. alone lost over $230 million, and that is just reported cases. Many victims are simply too upset and embarrassed to report.

How Does the Scam Work?

The criminal creates a fake profile, usually on an online dating site but some scammers also use social media sites, especially Facebook. The profile is set up to be particularly attractive.

Then they will make contact with several candidates, reaching out to them and pretending to be interested romantically. Once trust has been established, the thief will tell the mark they need money, perhaps to meet them, to help a sick relative, to deal with a work crisis, etc.

Who is Targeted?

Women are more likely to be targeted than men. Seniors are more likely to be targeted than younger individuals. Widows and divorced women are the most common target due to the fact that they are often lonely and emotionally vulnerable. Some scammers will also target married women, especially ones that appear to be unhappy. However, there also scammers who target men. Gays and lesbians are also particularly vulnerable, due to the desperation sometimes caused by the smaller available dating pool.

So, everyone who is looking for a partner online should be wary of the so-called “sweetheart scammer.”

In many cases, there is also a second victim of the scam. The scammers steal their profile pictures from other people, and somebody may find their picture, or even their entire identity, is being used in a romance scam.

online dating

Online dating can be dangerous

Who Perpetrates These Scams?

Statistically, most of the scammers appear to be located in either Nigeria or Russia. They are often connected to larger criminal organizations, and some of these groups are large, with entire groups of workers sitting in a room in front of computers typing “love letters” all day.

What Kinds of Romance Scam Are There?

The romance scam comes in a few variants:

  • The lonely soldier. This was extremely popular for a while. One soldier had his name and picture stolen to use in a scam nearly 100 times, including pictures that included his minor son. Perhaps even more disturbingly, other scammers have taken pictures from the obituaries of soldiers killed overseas. Women over 40 should not accept Facebook or online dating requests from men in military uniform they do not know, especially if they are listed as being deployed overseas or are ranked in the Lieutenant to Lieutenant Colonel range. This particular variant includes the soldier who is, of course on deployment, asking for small but increasing amounts of money for “care package” type stuff.
  • The Middle East Construction Worker. In these cases, the scammers are suddenly sent to the Middle East. But don’t worry, they will come back and see you. All they need is a bit of help with the air fare… The location is not always the Middle East, but is commonly so – in another scam, the perpetrator claimed to be “Trying to finish up a job in California” and needed money to do so. Another variant was the man who claimed to be installing servers in Malaysia. A key factor is that the scammer claims to be a long distance away.
  • The reshipping scam. Some scammers will use online dating to find marks for a different scam called the “reshipping scam.” In this case, they will ask you to receive and send on valuable items such as laptop computers. They often claim to be involved in charity work in Europe or Africa and need your help getting equipment to the site. A variant is the money mule scam, where the sweetheart scammer convinces their mark to receive money and send it on.
  • Sextortion. In one high profile case in Detroit, gay men were targeted on an online dating site and groomed into having sex with the scammer. The scammers then claimed that their new partners were under 18 (they weren’t) and demanded huge amounts of money to not call the police. Usually, sextortion is less dramatic than this. The victim is convinced to take nudes or explicit videos of themselves, and then the scammers threaten to distribute the pictures to all of their friends. This particular scam is often aimed at men, with beautiful girls asking for ‘dick pics’.
  • Radicalization. This isn’t a common one, but young men and women have literally been enticed to join the Islamic State by the promise of being given a “jihottie” husband or wife.

How to Spot the Scammers?

So, how do you avoid being a victim? There are a few ways to spot online scammers.

They claim to be in the military, on an offshore oil rig, or on the other side of the world. Although long distance relationships do happen, scammers always have an excuse why they can’t meet.

Although they have a white picture and name, their English is poor, or their word choice is strange. Perhaps they claim to be British and write everything in American English or vice versa. A lot of these scammers do not, in fact, have English as a first language.

They are much younger than you. Scammers often try for a large age gap, because it can make the older victim feel good about themselves.

Asking for personal information quickly, such as your address “so they can send you gift”.

Early or extreme professions of love. Scammers will often try to tell you you are the one very quickly. Love at first sight (or text) does happen, but you should always be a bit suspicious of it.

Certain profile details. Scammers tend to pose in the mid-40s if male or low 30s if female, with men claiming to be engineers and women students. The absence of a political persuasion can also be a red flag, especially as many people prefer to date those with similar views.

Their profile photo is duplicated elsewhere. Save their profile picture, upload it to Google, and see if it shows up in multiple places. Is there an associated Facebook profile, and if so is it under the same name? Is, and yes this happens, the photo associated with an obituary?

Their story contradicts itself. In some cases, you might not always be talking to the same person.

They confuse pronouns. Sometimes the scammer may not be the same gender as the profile they’re faking, and as any writer knows, that can cause pronoun confusion.

They refuse to contact you via video chat. (If you do video chat a stranger, have them give you their number, not the reverse).

They refuse to meet in person or demand that you give them money first, and they ask you for money. At all.

If the person seems to be too good to be true, they probably are. Scammers will try to be your perfect date, even if that involves implausible coincidences. Also, check out our online dating safety tips here.

What If You Get Scammed?

So, what if you get got? A romance scam can be extremely painful, and many people are too embarrassed to admit happened. But here is what you should do:

  1. Cut them off. If you’ve sent them a check at the time you realize you have been scammed, stop it even if it is for a tiny amount (even if it’s less than the stop fee). Block them on the dating site and social media.
  2. Report the incident to the authorities. Only 15% of romance scams are ever reported. Although it is very hard to catch these guys, especially as they are generally seeking victims in a different country, the authorities can at least make them uncomfortable enough that they might change MOs. Take screenshots and save any emails if you can.
  3. Warn your friends about the person, including the picture they are using.
  4. If you are comfortable doing so, contact the owner of said picture. They may want to change their profile picture so they are not associated with the scammer.

Also, here some safety tips for online dating. Remember that this is a growing scam and one which is easy to fall for. There is no need to feel as if being “got” makes you stupid or a bad person.

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