Is meeting someone via online dating riskier than meeting a potential partner at a party, a bar, or going on a blind date? Both men and women tend to have similar views about the pros and cons of online dating, but on that particular issue their views definitely diverge, according to a national survey released in 2016 by the Pew Research Center.
The survey found that 53 percent of women who have used online dating considered it more dangerous than other ways of meeting people, versus only 38 percent of male online daters who agreed with that point of view.
Women’s heightened level of concern is justified, at least when it comes to the risk of being targeted by scam artists who post fake online dating profiles with the end goal of separating victims from their money.
While people of all ages are at risk of being hit by con artists who scout for victims via online dating sites, social media and chat rooms, the FBI says the most common targets actually are women over 40 who are divorced, widowed, or disabled.
Compared with any other Internet-enabled crimes, romance scams also take the highest financial toll, with victims reporting losses of nearly $200 million to the FBI in 2015.
But by learning how to take the right steps to protect yourself, you can avoid becoming one of those victims while still taking advantage of the benefits online dating can offer.
How romance scams work
Typically, con artists create fake profiles on dating sites, which may be carefully tailored to match your interests and what you have said in your own profile about what you’re looking for in a potential partner.
Their photos also are likely to be phony—shots of someone good-looking that are lifted from other websites. Romance scammers often claim that they live in the U.S. but currently are traveling or working abroad, which delays meeting in person.
For weeks, you communicate back and forth online, forming a deepening connection. When you finally are able to plan to ge together in person, something “unexpected” happens to delay that. You then may even receive flowers or a gift as a romantic gesture in lieu of that face-to-face encounter you’d been looking forward to.
Ultimately you reach the next stage: Your newfound potential romantic partner asks you for money—a short-term loan to cover a medical emergency, for example, or travel expenses to return to the U.S. after being robbed or some other unexpected financial setback.
If you agree to wire the money, here’s what you can expect, as described by the Federal Trade Commission: “One request leads to another, and delays and disappointments will follow. In the end, the money will be gone along with the person you thought you knew.” Some scammers may even have proposed making wedding plans before disappearing with your money.
How to protect yourself
Following are several online dating safety tips from the FTC and the FBI:
1. Never send money to someone you’ve only met online. Also, don’t agree to do other favors they may request, such as making an online purchase or forwarding a package to another country, both of which can be related to criminal activities. An online love interest who asks for such favors or wire transfers of cash is almost certainly a scam artist, the FTC says.
2. Do some homework. Copy a dating prospect’s profile photo and do an image search using Google or another search engine to see if the same photo is being used by anyone else. You also can copy portions of the text used in their profile or messages they send you and search online to see if the same text appears on multiple sites under different names or photos. Online dating con artists often follow a prepared script, just as crooks do in phone scams.
3. Meet in person as soon as possible. If the person repeatedly delays or makes excuses for not getting together, that’s a red flag. And when you do meet for the first time, make sure it’s in a public place and arrange for your own transportation there and back.
4. Don’t ignore red flags. If someone’s profile seems too good to be true or you have misgivings for any reason, pay attention to those gut feelings. You should also check in with a close friend to make sure you’re not missing something, especially if you’re feeling swept away too soon.
Finally, if you have been victimized in an online dating scam, report it to the FBI. Many victims are too embarrassed to report what they’ve been through, but providing information about your experience can help law enforcement track down the people responsible and spare others from being hurt too.
Andrea Rock is freelance journalist who specializes in health topics. Her work has earned her the American Academy of Family Physicians Award for Outstanding Journalistic Achievement In Reporting and Writing on Family Medicine and Health Care, the National Magazine Award for Journalism in the Public Interest, and the Society of Professional Journalists Award for Investigative Reporting. She was a senior writer and editor for Consumer Reports for more than a decade, and is the author of The Mind at Night: The New Science of How and Why We Dream. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Money, SELF, O Magazine, and Ladies’ Home Journal.