True love is hard to find, or so the saying goes—except when you try to find love on the internet.
Online romance scams victimize thousands of people hungry for love each year. The victims are mostly women because there's a belief that men are too ashamed to report to the authorities that they got duped. Romance fraud is a million-dollar industry, and most scams originate from countries in West Africa and former Soviet Union states.
Russian dating scams aren't always perpetrated by Russians, however. Back in 2004, an American man named Robert McCoy was in the news. He and his wife were both arrested for trying to defraud fellow citizens of thousands of dollars in a Russian bride scam. He'd use his Russian wife when he needed a woman's voice and Russian accent.
How Online Romance Scams Work
There are about 1,500 online dating websites that offer the same thing: an opportunity to find love. Not all these sites are dubious, and a lot of them are subscription-based services that have members with sincere intentions. However, with the sheer number of lonely people signing-up, there will always be plenty of predators hiding in plain sight.
The romance scam starts with the victim receiving a response to his ad from someone with a supermodel-like profile picture. The scammer always makes first-contact, because this gives him/her more control of the situation.
In most romance fraud horror stories, the "love interest" could pose as any of the following:
- A good-looking actor/actress or model that's much younger than the victim
- Belonging to a rich or royal family (prince/princess)
- An active member of the military
- A widow or widower who has children
- A professional (engineer, doctor, etc.)
- In an abusive relationship that necessitates leaving the country
These are only some of the identities these fraudsters might assume. The common thread is that they appear to be younger, good looking, and rich. Most will carry a sob story of why they need help leaving their own country. Others pose as these loaded individuals who don't need money but will need partners in an investment.
Hook, Line, and Sinker
When the con artist makes an irresistible profile and turns on the charm, victims find it hard to resist. It's like they fall under a hypnotic spell they can't break. It could be the excitement of a younger person taking interest or the tug of emotions from a sob-story.
In any case, the thinking process goes out of the window, and any rational thought gets crushed by primal urges. Following a few emails, phone calls, and messages, the con-artist would claim to be madly in love with the victim.
Criminals will ask for money from the victim, usually for reasons such as:
- The scammer is at the airport, buying a ticket to see the victim when his/her wallet got stolen or the ticketing office declined his/her credit card
- To pay for a sick loved one or a family tragedy
- To pay for internet connection or phone service
- To start the migration process to the victim's own country
- To pay for "special military papers," so he/she could get off base and meet the victim
The victim sends money through an irreversible method like a wire transfer.
How to Avoid Getting Scammed
Romance scams are the worst. These intricate con games not only manipulate and play on a victim's loneliness, but also scars them from falling in love again. The bruised ego and lost money cannot compare to the emotional trauma brought about by online dating scams.
Always be suspicious and practice these tips to protect yourself.
1. Search Public Records
If you have doubts about a person, check the public records database or archives of where he/she claims to live. If there are no records, chances are the person isn't real. If the records show a deceased individual or a completely different person, the jig is up.
2. Use search engines to investigate potential romance candidates
When you meet someone online, and the person seems too good to be true, Google is your friend. Cut and paste emails and messages and search for the text the person used. Scammers re-hash old lines that end up on websites devoted to exposing their lies.
Upload the person's photo to a reverse image search website to see where else the image pops up on the internet. Check websites dedicated to exposing romance scammers. If a criminal duped other people, he/she would appear there.
3. Keep it Real by Keeping it Local
Long-distance relationships with a person you've spent in-person time with don't always work, so why expect better results from a complete stranger you've met online? Pursuing a long-distance relationship with someone you never met is asking for trouble. Most scammers target international victims so they can avoid prosecution.
4. Personal Data Should Always Stay Private
Never reveal anything personal to someone you just met online, even if you think you're in love. Criminals will use the info you share against you by either stealing your identity or breaking into your accounts. If you've met someone online whom you believe to be honest, play it safe and keep your private details secure until you've done your due diligence and actually met face-to-face.
5. Broken English
A lot of romance scammers hail from Ghana, Nigeria, Russia, and other former Soviet states. Watch out for their command of the English language. If their language skills are a bit fuzzy, that should raise a red flag. When in doubt, aim for a phone call. Someone who seems real in an email may sound like a fraudster on the phone.
6. Stay Away from Free Dating Sites
Scammers are less likely to use paid sites where each member must have a credit card on file. (Keep in mind that although scammers are less abundant on free sites, you may still encounter them.)
7. Be Wary of a Person Claiming to Be as Solider
The number of scams involving fraudsters posing as members of the military is increasing. Don't fall for it, especially if the scammer asks for money.
8. Take Sob Stories With a Grain of Salt
Many scammers claim to be widowers or widows who recently suffered a loss. Some con-artists will reveal that he/she lost a parent or child in an accident, or has a very sick relative. Do not fall for these types of sob stories.
Be Wary When Romancing Online
When love is too good to be true online, there's a 99% chance that it is. Always err on the side of caution. Never wire money to a stranger, and never open email or chat attachments. These attachments may contain malware that steals personal data. Lastly, be sure to report any suspicious behavior to the Federal Trade Commission.
Author’s bio: Patrick Peterson is a writer/editor at AutoDetective.