By Brittany Lyons
For many busy people, online dating has become a normal or even preferred method for meeting potential love matches, and it’s easy to see why it’s so popular. Singles are often bombarded with stories of success featuring married couples who met online, and continue to live happily ever after, so they don’t see the possible harm. However, because of the anonymity offered by the Internet, it’s easy for predators and scammers alike to misrepresent themselves. Both are impossible to identify 100% of the time, which is why it’s best to avoid online dating. But if you do choose to try it out, there are a few things you can do to protect yourself from scammers. If you aren’t cautious, the emotional and financial costs could be steep.
Take the case of Emily (name changed to protect the innocent), a 53-year-old woman from New York. Emily did many things online—telecommuted, shopped, even educated herself through an online PhD program. When she decided it was time to get back onto the dating scene, it was only natural that she would turn to a dating website. Since she was only testing it out, she decided to start with a free one, to see how she liked it. And that was how she met Charlie.
He claimed to be a soldier, stationed overseas in Afghanistan, and showed her several pictures of himself in uniform and in the field. She believed she had finally met the perfect man, and their relationship blossomed steadily over the course of six months. Charlie talked to her regularly through emails and chat messages, as his position in the military limited his access to other forms of communication, and often had flowers or small presents delivered to her house. As his return home drew closer, however, he began to complain of banking troubles, saying that local banks wouldn’t accept his paychecks. Wanting to help, Emily agreed to cash the checks for him and wire the money.
This happened several times, always accompanied by a heartfelt thanks. Yet when the checks didn’t clear, Emily began to get suspicious. At first “Charlie” assured her that they just took a while sometimes, and they would come through soon, but eventually the jig was up. Ultimately, he scammed her out of $25,000 over the course of six months, using her love for him and her patriotic desire to help a soldier against her. Emily was the victim of an online dating scam.
Like Charlie, potential scammers use a wide range of methods to try to win your trust, and if Emily had known about these tactics she may have recognized the scam sooner. There were several red flags in Charlie’s behavior, and all of them are things that can be double-checked. Here’s how.
The first thing Emily could have done to protect herself came before she even met Charlie. While it is possible to meet genuine people online, you should be very cautious about it. If you do decide to use an online dating site, stay away from the free ones. Scammers are less likely to target pay sites because they need a credit card to sign up, which leaves a paper trail and makes them easy to track down. Secondly, you should always check that the dating site you use runs their members through a sex offender database, such as RSO SAFE from SSP Blue. This is usually fairly easy to figure out, as the site will include this in their member agreement language.
The second step came when Charlie sent Emily the photos. It’s easy to find photos online, so many dating scammers steal photos from sources like Facebook or MySpace to create a fake identity. Posing as a military member who is currently deployed overseas (or, alternately, as a businessman or journalist stationed in the field) is quite common, as it gives the scammer an excuse to avoid meeting in person. To test if the pictures are genuine, try a reverse image search to see where else the pictures have been posted, and under what name. This technology is new, and today works mostly with commercial images, but hopefully it will get better.
Next, most scammers will try to transition to email or online text chat soon after making contact, because dating sites will keep track of user’s correspondence and may flag them if they are conducting several relationships at once. To protect against this, Emily could have kept her communication to the tools provided on the website. As a general rule, it’s a good idea to avoid communicating through personal email and text until you meet in person, in a public place. If your match is overseas, ask for a video chat to see the person’s face. Phone calls do not count. Anyone with access to email and chat messaging has access to Skype, which is free to use and easy to install. If they do not have a webcam, direct them to an Internet cafe in the area, as most computers there do. If Emily had done this, she would have seen that the man speaking did not match the pictures.
All of these things may seem like overkill, but if the person courting you is real, he or she should understand your caution—and exercise it themselves. The process of checking one another’s credentials at the outset of the relationship is vital, because once they have gained your trust, the real scam begins.
To further protect yourself, keep this in mind: wire transfers are a key tool for scammers because they are like sending cash—very hard to trace, leaving you with no means of tracking your money down. Another common trick involves asking you to cash a check or money order that has been “washed” to change the value from a low amount to a high amount. When you cash it, the bank holds you liable for the money, which means that when they identify the fraud and the check bounces a few weeks later, you have to pay it back in full. The best way to guard against this is to wait a couple weeks after the check has cleared to send the money on.
Scammers may also ask you to re-ship something for them (which may be an attempt to smuggle stolen goods), or even steal your identity through viruses in emails or text messages. You should never give out your real address online or ship a package you don’t know the contents of, and always run email attachments through a virus checker.
As a general rule, any requests for money or favors, especially before meeting, are warning signs of a potential scam. Never send money to someone you have just met on an online dating site, or perform any finance-related favors. Run attachments, like pictures in emails, through a virus scanner before opening them. Demand a meeting in person, in a public place. While completely avoiding a potential scammer is difficult, using these simple steps can help you to see the problem before it starts. Don’t let your fear prevent you from looking for love, but play it safe. If you feel someone is too good to be true, they just might be.