For years now, the popularity of online dating has been on the rise, as has the number of online romance scams that leave people with broken hearts and empty wallets.
The pandemic played cupid and like working digitally, people also looked for love online. Last year, Interpol issued an advisory to its 194 member countries, including India, saying scammers were scamming people on dating apps and asking users to be vigilant and safe when starting relationships online.
How do online dating and romance scams start?
Dating and romance scams are not limited to online dating apps and sites, they will also happen on social media and online games.
Initially, an introduction is made, a conversation begins, and from there, a friendship (or more) blossoms. Along the way, the scammer will often rely on a combination of somewhat exotic but believable narratives to lure the victim, often involving her job and where she works. Reports say the scammers will talk about being workers on an offshore oil rig, members of the military stationed abroad, doctors working with an international organization, or working in the kind of jobs that would prevent them from easily meeting in person.
With the fake relationship established, the scammer begins tricking victims into making the wrong financial decisions. Establishing trust is important for scammers as after this they share investment advice with their victims and influence them to join a scheme. The victims do not realize that they are exploited until one day all contact ceases. They are left confused, hurt and worried that they will never see their money again. Scammers often employ a story with an intriguing complication that seems reasonable enough, one in which the romance scammer makes it seem like he might actually need the victim’s financial help.
Common types of online dating scams
People who have filed fraud reports say they have paid the scammer in a few typical ways.
One is by transferring money, often through a wire transfer company. The benefit of this route, for the scammer anyway, is that this is just as good as shelling out cash. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. The victim lacks the protections they have with other forms of payment, such as a credit card that allows the cardholder to cancel or dispute a charge.
Another way is through gift cards. Scammers of all kinds, not just romance scammers, like these because they effectively work like cash, whether it’s a gift card to a major online retailer or a brick-and-mortar chain store. Like a wire transfer, once the gift card is delivered, the money on it is very difficult to get back, if at all.
Another common payment is through reloadable debit cards. A scammer may make an initial request for such a card and then make multiple follow-up requests to load it again.
In general, a romance scammer will typically look for the easiest payment method that is the hardest to dispute or refund, leaving the victim in financial shambles once the scam is over.
How to avoid getting entangled in an online dating or romance scam?
When it comes to online dating, there are a few things to keep in mind. First of all, it is always useful to tell someone you trust about the person you are interested in, since an outside observer can more easily notice suspicious behavior and warn you about it. Second, it also helps to check your date details online. In case you find a different profile with the same image to show as your partner’s, it is very likely that you are being scammed. Lastly, don’t accept online gift requests and money transfers from someone you’ve never met.
Scammers, while arguably heartless, are still human. They make mistakes. The stories they make up are just that. Stories. They may get the details mixed up, get the time and date wrong, or just get caught up in an apparent lie. Also, keep in mind that some scammers may be working with multiple victims at once, which is another opportunity for them to get confused and make mistakes.
As mentioned above, some romance scammers control social media and communicate via direct message or friend request. With that, there are three things you can do to reduce your chances of getting caught by a scammer:
- get private—Social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and others give you the option to make your profile and posts visible only to friends. Choosing this setting prevents the Internet at large from seeing what you’re doing, saying, and posting, which can help protect your privacy and give a romance scammer less information to exploit.
- Say “no” to strangers who have friend requests—Be critical of the invitations you receive. Total strangers could be more than just a romance scammer, they could be a fake account designed to collect information about users for cybercrime purposes, or they could be an account designed to spread false information. There are plenty of them too. In fact, in the third quarter of 2021 alone, Facebook took action on 1.8 billion fake accounts. Reject such requests.
- Protect yourself and your devices—Security software can protect you from clicking on malicious links that a scammer may send you online, while keeping you away from other threats like viruses, ransomware, and phishing attacks in general. It can also search for your personal information, protecting your privacy and monitoring your email, SSN, bank accounts, credit cards and other information that a scammer or identity thief can use. Since identity theft is a fairly common occurrence nowadays, security software is really a must.
put an end to it
If you suspect you are being scammed, end the relationship and report it, as difficult as it may seem.
Feel free to report to official portals like the National Cyber Crime Reporting Portal (NCCRP) as they can help you investigate and notify the police to identify and take legal action against scammers. Similarly, notify the social networking site, app, or service where the scam also occurred. In the event that your bank account or card details are compromised, instead of making emotional decisions, follow the rules and regulations for these types of incidents.
Lastly, be easy on yourself. If you are the victim of an online dating or romance scam, know that you will not be the first or the last person to be taken advantage of in this way. By reporting your case, you can actually help others not to be victims too.