Romance Scams

Internet dating is increasingly popular. Relationships that begin online can and do work, and there are many married couples who met online. The internet can connect you with an unlimited number of people you might not otherwise have met. This is why a growing number of older women are going online to look for a partner.

Unfortunately, there is also a growing number of scammers using legitimate dating websites like RSVP, eHarmony and Tinder to target women and trick them into giving away their savings, not to mention their dignity and trust. Many scammers specifically target older women as they perceive to be lonely and vulnerable, with significant life savings behind them.

You might think that it is easy to spot a scammer – fake-looking profile picture, poor command of English, sounds too good to be true. But many of these scammers are professionals working in teams. They can be sophisticated and very, very convincing.

Consider this typical online dating scam scenario:

You’ve heard about the danger of online scammers so you sign up to a legitimate online dating website. Soon enough, someone contacts you. His profile picture looks real – he’s not a model, but he’s attractive – and he has several other photos of him with friends, family members and travelling. You share several common interests and live quite close to one another. You start chatting and feel an instant connection. The attraction is mutual and you soon leave the dating site behind to start chatting via email and on the phone. You notice his slight accent, and he tells you about his time spent living overseas. You’d like to talk on Skype but his web cam is broken.

Pretty soon you’re chatting every day and you feel you have a strong connection with this man. He’s unlike anyone you’ve ever met before – he sends you passionate emails, wants to hear your voice every day and isn’t shy about professing his love after only few weeks. You know things are moving fast but you talk so regularly that this feels natural. You decide it’s time to meet in person. He would love to meet as well but can’t until he returns from a business trip overseas (he travels regularly for work). So you decide on a date to meet when he gets back.

A few days before he’s due to arrive home, he calls you, sounding distressed. He had an accident and is in the hospital. He’s okay now, but the hospital won’t let him leave until he pays his medical fees. But his money is currently tied up with the business deal he is working on during his trip. He needs you to help to pay the hospital bill so that he can come home, and then he will be able to reimburse you as soon as his travel insurance claim is processed. Your alarm bells ring immediately – you know about online scams and would ordinarily never consider sending money to someone you haven’t met before. But then you receive a call from his doctor at the hospital telling you that you were listed as his next of kin and confirming the situation. It’s quite a lot of money but you’re worried about him and you won’t be out of pocket for long. So you agree to send the money by wire transfer. You’re relieved when it is finally the day that he is due to fly home. Then you receive another call. There was a problem with his visa at the airport and he desperately needs some money to pay a fine before his plane leaves. He’s travelling in a country well known for corruption, so you reluctantly send him your credit card details. You just can’t wait to have him home so you can begin your future together.

But then you suddenly stop hearing from him. He isn’t replying to your emails or answering your calls. You go back to the dating website and his profile is no longer there.

Unfortunately, this scenario is common. Australians have lost millions of dollars to dating scams and this money is hardly ever recovered. Not only are people left with significantly depleted savings in retirement, but they feel intense shame, embarrassment and loss of dignity and trust at the hands of someone they thought they loved and could trust.

For a real life story, watch this video of how New Zealand woman Rebekah Tyler became caught in a dating scam.

These scams can also put you in physical danger.  Tragically, there are recent examples of online romance scam victims who have been killed, such as a West Australian grandmother who was allegedly murdered in South Africa in 2013 by a man she met online. Click here to read the story.

How do I know if I’m being scammed?

Spotting a fake profile

If you are going to try online dating, there are several precautions you should take before you become emotionally involved with someone:

  1. Pay attention to their age. Scammers usually target people who are older than them because they see them as wealthy and more vulnerable. So if you suddenly receive interest from a man much younger than you, you should be suspicious.
  1. Look for common characteristics of a scammer in their profile. Scammers often use descriptions designed to appeal to older women and make it easy to avoid meeting face to face, such as:
    • Widower
    • Self-employed or a professional (such as engineer) working overseas
    • They live near you but are currently away overseas, and returning soon

Copy text from their profile into an online search engine such as Google. If you find the same text on other websites under different photos, you know you’ve found a scammer.

  1. Do a photo check. Scammers don’t just use obviously fake pictures of celebrities and models on their online dating profiles. Scammers targeting older women will typically pose as a mature looking, well-off businessman or engineer. Save a picture of their profile photo and then follow these steps to check whether it is a fake:

Go to images.google.com and click the camera icon in the search bar to ‘search by image’.

google-search-bar

 

You can then upload the photo and check where else it appears on the internet.

This dating website profile photo appears on lots of other websites and has clearly been used by scammers previously:

google-image-check

 

If the photo has already been identified as one used by scammers or appears on other websites under a different identity, you should cease contact and report them to the website.

If the photo seems legitimate, have a close look at their other photos and check that they fit with the description this person is providing of themselves. For example, do the backgrounds, clocks, calendars and language on signs and books all match up with their description of themselves? Do they have a wedding ring on their finger when they claim to be single? These types of inconsistencies will tell you that the photos are fake.

If they seem legitimate…

You’ve done your research, their profile seems real and you start chatting. You should still remain cautious, particularly if you haven’t yet met face to face, because many scammers are skilled professionals and can be very hard to spot initially.

You should take the following steps as the relationship develops:

  1. Notice any inconsistencies. If you notice inconsistencies such the person referring to places that are not near where they live, or being active online when they’ve said they are away or would normally be asleep (suggesting they are in different time zone), then your alarm bells should ring.
  1. Look closely at their emails. Scammers often write emails and profile descriptions that are:
    • vague about the details of their life, their interests, or what they want in a partner
    • do not answer your questions or the responses they give are repetitive, nonsensical, or formulaic
    • are riddled with poor grammar or spelling mistakes, often mixing up pronouns (such as he/she) or getting your name or even their own name wrong
  1. Ask specific questions. Ask them specific questions about a movie or TV show they claim to like and the place they are from, such as local landmarks or favourite restaurants. Look up their answers to check for accuracy.
  1. Talk on the phone or Skype. Using a webcam or Skype will allow you to see them in real time. Phone conversations can give you clues that the person is not who they say they are, such as:
    • A slight accent that does not match their place of origin, or use of awkward phrases
    • Giving you vague answers in response to your questions
    • A phone number that does not match the country or area code of the place they claim to be living in
  1. Beware of speed. You might think that using pet names or quickly professing their love for you after only a few weeks of talking is a sign of openness and emotional honesty. But scammers typically try to quickly progress the relationship to a point where you are willing to give them money. Be very wary of over the top expressions of how they feel about you after only chatting for a few weeks, as well as rapid attempts to move the conversation away from the gaze of the dating website to email, phone and instant messaging.
  1. Meet face to face. If they constantly make excuses as to why they can’t meet face to face (such as being overseas or having a sick relative), there is a strong chance that the person is not who they say they are. If you do agree to meet in person, arrange to meet in a public place and always tell a friend or family member where you are going.
  1. Watch out for the catch. Eventually, after weeks or months of talking to you and establishing a strong bond with you, a scammer will tell you an often convincing story designed to elicit money or financial details from you. While it may seem extraordinary that people fall for such stories, by this stage the scammer has gained your trust and caused you to let your guard down. Scammers can be very creative, but the most common scenarios designed to elicit money from you include:
  • They have had a financial emergency and need immediate help
  • They have been robbed and lost all their money
  • They have had an accident or have a seriously ill relative and can’t afford the medical bills
  • They want to visit you but can’t afford the airfare
  • They need your help to pay taxes or duty fees on a business deal, and may even promise you a share in the profits

If you refuse to pay, they will try to emotionally blackmail you, telling you that they thought you trusted them and you cannot have a relationship without trust.

Any request for money from someone you have never met should treated as a scam. You should NEVER send money to anyone you meet online, even if you have been talking for months and feel you know them well and love them.

  1. Finally, be honest with yourself. When you are approached by someone online, always ask yourself:
  • Thousands of single women have profiles on the website – is this person’s interest in me realistic? (For example, why is an attractive younger man so interested in getting to know me based only on my profile?)
  • Does this person’s description of themselves really add up?
  • Why does this person seem to have unlimited time to chat to me but can never meet up in person?

The majority of people on online dating sites are genuinely there to find a partner, and trust is eventually a big part of building a relationship. But taking these sorts of precautions will help you avoid wasting your time talking to people who aren’t who they say they are, as well as protect your financial security, emotional health and potentially physical safety.

Remember there are some things you should NEVER do in the context of online dating in any circumstances:

NEVER send money to anyone you meet online.

NEVER share your banking or credit card details with anyone you meet online.

NEVER share sexually explicit photographs or videos of yourself on the internet (scammers will use these to blackmail you).

NEVER agree to meet someone in person without first telling a family member of friend where you are going.

I’ve been scammed…what can I do?

It is common to feel embarrassed if you’ve been the victim of a dating scam, which is why so many victims do not report it. Unfortunately, you’re not alone. Large numbers of Australians have fallen victim to this type of very convincing scam and unless you report it, the scammer will continue to target other women.

See our Where to Get Help page for advice on how to report the scammer and get help.

 

Image credit: Matthew Bowden | Dreamstime Stock Photos