How To Avoid Online Dating Scams

She was a middle-aged American woman on a dating site for middle-aged American singles. She listed her information truthfully: her religion, her hometown. Then he came knocking at her digital door.

He was dashing, attractive. He said he was an architect, a educated man building a railroad in Malaysia. He also claimed to be from the same small town as she was. “Oh really?” she asked, and the red flags went up. “What part?” She told him — and he named a correct street name, though a common one.

He was gentlemanly, gallant even, over their two weeks over correspondence. “Oh. I just want to come home and see you, and we’ll go out for dinner, and we’ll go hiking,” he said. His English was off — but he excused it, saying he had grown up in California and then moved to Germany, so he spoke strangely.

Supposedly sixty, when asked about his favorite music, he said rap. He may have been able to whip out pictures of that bridge and use Google Earth, but he was clearly out of touch with American pop culture. And his words were just — off. He called her eyes “precious.”

“He used his adjectives wrong,” she said, “and his spelling was totally off the wall.” So she knew. She knew long before the big reveal came, two weeks in, when he asked for fifteen thousand dollars to finish his bridge project “so I can come home to you.”

In retrospect, she just feels badly for whomever’s Facebook photos he swiped to perpetuate the scam.

This is a true story, and it is by no means an isolated incident. In fact, her good friend had the same thing happen to her. “Oh, yours asked for fifteen thousand?” her friend giggled. “Mine only asked for two thousand.” But both women saw how, if they were more naive, more desperate, more lonely…if they were more trusting and less tech-savvy, they could have been taken in.

[Looking for love? Check out our full list of Security Tips For Dating Apps And Websites.]

The Australian government shows on their Competition and Consumer Commission site that romantic and dating scams cost their citizens a staggering 20 million Australian ($15,333,800 U.S. dollars) in 2017 alone. In February 2018 alone, according to the same site, people lost $2,463,000 AU in 333 reports ($1,888,357.47 US).

In 2016, says the FBI News page, “almost 15,000 complaints categorized as romance scams or confidence fraud were reported to IC3 (nearly 2,500 more than the previous year), and the losses associated with those complaints exceeded $230 million.” And they believe only 15 percent of these crimes are reported.

Don’t let this be you. There are ways to spot this type of scam — often called “catfishing” — and easy ways to avoid the scammers. Make sure you know how to do both.

Don’t Overshare

Take pictures meant only for your dating site, so a criminal can’t do a reverse image search and find out more identifying details than you want him to know — like your hometown. Make your listed location a big, vague area, and make sure your username includes neither your first nor last name — that makes it easier for crooks to dig up info they can use to play on your heartstrings. Think parents’ obituaries, or awards you’ve won. Do not give anyone access to your phone number or your social media accounts.

Beware Broken English

If you’re on an American dating site, it’s not a stretch to expect someone to speak American English well enough, preferably while using current internet jargon. If their adjectives are off (“precious eyes”), their spelling is bad, or their cadences seem wrong, be on your guard.

Online At Odd Times

Be wary of potential dates who only seem online at odd times. That could be because they’re in a wildly different time zone. The scammer described above got around it by saying he was actually in Malaysia. Watch out for that, too — anyone overseas should immediately put your on your guard.

Normal Knowledge

Your would-be date should be knowledgeable of appropriate American pop culture for their age and station in life. If an older man is into Beyonce, or a younger person insists he’s a huge fan of “the Chubby Checker,” then you might want to eye the profile a little harder. Ask the last movie they saw in the theater, and their favorite movie ever. The suitor should also have a working knowledge of books — maybe they aren’t a reader, but anyone can fudge it and say they like Stephen King. The scammer, when asked what book he liked, named a Russian poet who wrote only in Russian. Uh-huh.

Your date should also have a working knowledge of recent American news, should know something about American politics, and have some sort of knowledge about American sports — even if they express apathy about all of it.

Dates Should Log Off

Your date should not be on the dating site all the time. Every time our potential victim logged on, she saw that her scammer was on, too. When she confronted him about it, he got possessive and defensive: “We’re in a relationship! You should not be on here looking for strange men!” He claimed his phone turned on the app whenever he turned it on, and that his computer did the same. Newsflash: it doesn’t work that way. He was likely online looking for other women to scam.

Your date should also not keep promising to meet you, then backing out at the last minute. If it’s been a few months — and yes, these scams can go on for months — and you haven’t met them, something is clearly wrong.

No Inappropriate Pics

Your date should not ask for inappropriate pics they could use to extort money from you later. While the scammer described above was the perfect gentleman — and that makes sense, because no one can object to that, while you can turn someone off quickly by getting sexual — some scammers take the opposite tact. Do not send nudes. Do not send anything you aren’t comfortable with being seen by the entire internet. Because they can use that to scare you into sending cash.

Never Send Money

It’s the most obvious tip, and it turns a would-be scam into an actual scam: above all, never send money. Especially never send wire transfers, which are like handing someone cash — nearly impossible to get back. If someone online asks you for money, shut it down. Report them to the FBI and to the dating service. Chances are, he or she is scamming multiple people at the same time, and you could save someone a lot of money and a lot of heartache if you drop the embarrassment and step up.

Remember, you are not responsible for anyone’s predatory behavior. You are responsible, however, for how you decide to react to it. Do not send nudes. Do not send money. Report them to the proper authorities. And while they may not get caught, they may have to lie low for a while. In this world, that’s sometimes all you can ask for.

Elizabeth Broadbent

Elizabeth Broadbent

Elizabeth Broadbent lives in a medium-sized city in the South with her three children, three dogs, and patient husband. She works as a staff writer for Scary Mommy, and her writing has been featured in The Washington Post and on Time.com.

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