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Caught in a Bad Romance: How to Avoid Online Dating Scams

by:
Josie D'Addario

“O Romeo, O Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?”

  • William Shakespeare, 1597

Everyone is looking for their Romeo or their Juliet; a lot of wonderful connections have been built online. However, there is also a dark side to online dating, and that potential Romeo or Juliet you seek can be nothing more than a very patient, smooth-talking scam artist out to take your money. 

“Love is in the air...”

  • John Paul Young, 1977

Sure, office romances and the occasional supermarket meet-cute still exist, but today, many people are finding their perfect match online. In fact, popular dating site eHarmony boasts that it creates over 15 million matches every day.

What makes online dating so appealing? For one, it’s easy. You can post your best photo, while perusing potential mates in your skivvies or with your hair in curlers. Then there’s the anonymity; you can say things you likely never would in person. However, according to the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, the most appealing aspect of online dating is the ability to shop around. “There is a crossover between the consumer mentality and the dating mentality,” the report states. WIthout hurting anyone’s feelings, you can pick—or nix—possible partners.

“Every rose has its thorn...”

  • Poison, 1988

Like most things with good intentions, there is always someone looking to take advantage of online dating. Despite the vetting process of dating sites (some even require background checks), a simple instant message over social media can lead to more trouble. Now, “romance scams” have become big business for both two-bit phonies and big-time criminals. In 2016 alone, their scams cost unsuspecting Canadians $18 million dollars—that’s an average of $23,000 per victim! Because of the pressure to have a sweetheart this time of year, Valentine’s Day is particularly popular with scam artists.

Why have scammers taken their aim at Cupid? There are three main reasons:

  1. They are rarely caught. They may be in another country, virtually untraceable, not a priority for law enforcement, or in the clear due to numbers two and three below.

  2. They often go unreported. Victims are often embarrassed or afraid of ridicule for being gullible; they don’t want to admit to being duped, and therefore don’t report the incident. So, while the number of frauds is certainly staggering, it’s assumed that they are, in reality, much greater.

  3. They are often not punishable by law. The sneakiest of scammers never do anything that’s technically considered illegal; immoral, yes, but illegal, not exactly. It can be difficult to prosecute someone who asked for money that was willingly given away, even if under false pretenses.

“I turned to a stranger just like a friend, I was lookin' for love in all the wrong places.”

  • Johnny Lee, 1980

You may be thinking, “what kind of person gives $23,000 to a stranger online?” You’d be surprised. Many scam artists will hustle for years, gaining affection by sending gifts and building trust by detailing a convincing story of why they can’t connect in-person (they may be “stationed overseas,” “going through court battles with an ex,” or “dealing with immigration issues”). In any of these scenarios, the scammer can keep the con going for years, and they’re skilled at preying upon the vulnerable; a Toronto woman lost over $450,000 over the course of seven years in a situation just like this.

“Love is a battlefield.”

  • Pat Benatar, 1983

The Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre (CAFC) reports that romance scams are the nation’s highest grossing con, beating out both email fraud and identity theft. So, how can you fight back and ensure that you’re not a victim of love?

  • Investigate. Most people are likely to do a quick Google search of a name, but that can be easily manipulated or turn up way too many or far too few results. This is when the profile pic becomes your best friend; run the photo through a reverse-image search engine, like Google Reverse or TinEye. You’ll quickly learn if it’s associated with another account, another name, or just a stock image.

  • Consider the occupation. Data suggests that male scammers often identify as an (non-specified) engineer; a safe bet, because most people wouldn’t know what kind of questions to ask to validate it. For female scammers, model is often the job-du-jour; it’s not hard to describe the work, and who wouldn’t like the ego-boost associated with dating a “model”?
  • Beware of Scammer Grammar. I like hold hands and long walk on beach” may sound cute if it’s someone with English as a second language; but it could be a bot using a (not very accurate) translator. You’re not even chatting with a person at this point!
  • Look for inconsistencies. The details can clue you in; focus on them. Many scammers are working multiple people at one time, trying to keep track of different stories and personas. If you’re paying attention, then you may catch them in an inconsistency (you can also try to trip them up by remembering one small detail of a story, and then asking about it days later).
  • Scam the scammer. It sounds shady, but you have to look out for your best interests. If you doubt the authenticity of an online courter, create a false account of your own and message them; if they are legitimate in their interest toward you, they will not engage with the decoy account.
  • Get a second opinion. The CAFC reports that most victims are targeted due to age (nearly 75 percent of claims originate from individuals aged 40-60) or isolation. If isolated, the target can become overly attached to their online admirer and use poor judgement. Getting an outside, unbiased opinion from a friend or loved one can help remove the blinders to see if perhaps this Lothario or Lolita is too good to be true.

A word of caution: We've all heard of “asking probing questions” to avoid romance scams. For example, if a user's profile says they love classic cars, then ask what year, make and model they own. Or, Google Map their city and inquire about a nearby restaurant or shop to see if they are familiar with it. But this approach can backfire (and not to mention be especially embarrassing if they turn out to be legitimate)mostly because the scammer can look up the appropriate answer just as quickly as you asked it.

"I ain’t got no money, but I sure got a whole lotta love.”

  • Bob Seger, 1978

You heard it from Bob, and this is the scammer's best line. No matter how much love they say they have to give, the most important rule is to never—and I mean never—send money to an online-only contact. No matter how much they’ve captured your heart, don’t do it. If you just can’t help yourself, at least insist that any money sent is via credit card transaction; this may allow for some recourse if ooh-la-la happens to be oh-no-he-didn’t.

“Said I loved you but I lied…”

  • Michael Bolton, 1993

Okay, Bolton had a twist: He only lied because it was more than love that he felt inside. But honestly, it does sound like a line from a really good scam artist, even without the sax. I don’t mean to seem jaded; who doesn’t want to believe in soulmates and true love? However, at Credit Canada, we also want to be sure you avoid being …

“Caught in a bad romance...”

  • Lady Gaga, 2009

If you’ve been wronged by Romeo or jilted by Juliet, victims of a romance scam can contact the CAFC or speak with one of our experienced Credit Canada credit counsellors now for advice and support.

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Topics: Money Management, Financial Literacy

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