We are a nation of lonely hearts. Millions of Americans use social media to find companionship, and according to the Association of Psychological Science, online dating is now the second most common way people find one another. Introductions from friends and family are still the most popular methods for finding love, but online dating sites now surpass churches, fitness clubs and bars as meeting places for those seeking friendship or romance.
We hear countless success stories, and many dating sites consist primarily of nice people looking to meet other nice people. But these sites are, unfortunately, also infested with criminals looking to exploit the vulnerable.
The anonymity of the Internet makes dating sites easy places for con artists to find victims, especially with so many people opening their hearts and earnestly hoping to find someone to love. While there has been significant focus on protecting children from Internet assault, adults need to be cautious as well.
Scammers set up fake profiles with legitimate online dating services. As a romantic relationship progresses, often for many months or even years, the communications usually leave the dating site and switch to personal emails. Victims receive pictures, which they are led to believe are of their new love interests, and the thieves tell elaborate stories about “their” families and personal lives.
None of the stories are true, of course.
The real people behind the fake profiles are Nigerian scam artists, and eventually the fake gentlemen and ladies come up with “emergencies” and ask for money.
A Lincoln woman recently reported to the BBB that she was a victim of a dating scam via Match.com, a respected dating site. She had a 16-month online relationship with a man who told her that he was an American working in Nigeria on a construction job. He sent pictures of (supposedly) himself with (supposedly) his son and told her he was building an orphanage. He claimed he would be receiving a payment of $16 million for the project in the near future and he even said he planned to share $1 million of that with her.
Don't be a victim
Going online to connect with others? The Better Business Bureau has some tips. Click on the tabs below to learn more.
Press for a meeting in person
Scammers are unwilling to meet their victims in person, and they will only communicate online or by phone. They often claim that this is due to career or life circumstances that take them overseas.
Check out photos to see if they are legitimate
If a person's photos look too good to be true, they might be purchased or stolen stock photos. TinEye.com is a reverse image search engine that can be helpful in determining where an image came from and how it is being used.
Question shared interests
Many people are luckily able to find compatible companions on the Internet, but con artists also appear to share your values and interests. These swindlers develop relationships quickly and talk of love very early on. They sometimes send flowers or gifts that were purchased using stolen credit cards. Their sensitivity and charm make these con artists very difficult to resist.
Beware of the sudden emergency
This is the biggest red flag of all. Once the relationship has been developed, scammers will claim to have a crisis and need your assistance. The emergency often involves a family member's health or a payment that is owed to them by the government, and they ask you to wire money to them because they are unable to access their own accounts.
After more than a year of very personal communications, he had successfully won the woman's trust.
The thief then said he was planning a trip back to America to finally meet her, but he needed cash. He explained, in detail, his reasons for needing the money and had perfectly reasonable excuses for not being able to get it from anyone else. He promised to pay her back. Over the last year, she wired $7,600.
When her online boyfriend failed to repay her, he referred her to his financial adviser. The “financial adviser” (also a Nigerian criminal) told the Lincoln woman that she was authorized to repay the loan on the man's behalf, but that the Nebraskan would have to send an additional $450 to cover the financial services.
The Lincoln woman refused the financial adviser's request and told her online friend she suspected him of fraud. He replied with a ferocious email, threatening to destroy her life if she tried to take him down. Terrified, the woman called the BBB for assistance.
The only real consolation we can offer wire transfer scam victims is the knowledge that they are not alone and that they do not need to feel ashamed for being taken in by these sophisticated villains. It is much easier than most people think to be fooled by these professionals.
Last year alone, nearly 46,000 victims reported wiring more than $144 million to offshore scammers. This huge number is only a fraction of the actual losses, since so many scam victims are too embarrassed or too fearful of retaliation to report the crimes.
This is not the same as that old letter or fax, in which a Nigerian prince explains his need to move money from a foreign bank and promises a chunk of the funds in exchange for the use of your bank account. We still see those letters, occasionally, in our email or texts, and its format and broken English make the old scam instantly recognizable to most of us.
That con has evolved, and these crooks are extremely adaptive when it comes to developing new tricks. They are smooth and engaging and are able to create lovable online characters so inviting and interesting that it is no surprise many people are taken in. Victims grow to trust, even love, the people they think they are communicating with, and are often left both heartbroken and financially ruined by these swindlers.
As the online dating industry continues to grow, consumers should be especially aware of the potential dangers that accompany dating sites. Scam artists are constantly coming up with new ways to trick victims. Some thieves have even set up elaborate and convincing phony dating websites to lure in their prey.
Do not give anyone you are interacting with on a dating site sensitive information that could be used to steal your identity or gain access to financial accounts.
The Better Business Bureau also recommends doing research beforehand to make sure the dating service you are using is legitimate and has a favorable business review with the BBB.
The most important advice is simple: If someone asks you to wire money for any reason, be very suspicious and check it out with the BBB.
Jim Hegarty is president of the Better Business Bureau representing Nebraska and southwest Iowa. To contact him, email to jhegarty@bbbnebraska or call 402-898-8520.