As online dating continues to become a more popular means to finding love, it has also become an easy target for scammers looking for their next victim. What better way to get into someone’s wallet than through their heart?
The online dating world
According to statisticbrain.com, approximately 41 million people in the United States have tried online dating websites. As of Jan. 1, popular dating websites, such as eHarmony.com and Match.com reported 15 million and 21 million members, respectively.
An article recently published in The Wall Street Journal called online dating scams an epidemic. In 2012, the Federal Trade Commission created a separate category for them, called romance scams. In 2013, the agency received complaints of losses totaling $105 million. The agency believes that the complaints reported are just the tip of the iceberg.
How is it done?
Scammers looking for their next victim on dating websites create fake profiles to build online relationships, eventually convincing people to send them money. The Wall Street Journal profiled one case involving a 66-year-old woman who dipped into her retirement savings and refinanced her house to invest $500,000 into a fictitious oil rig created by her online suitor. He asked her to send money in allotments to a Turkish bank.
Other examples involve perpetrators impersonating soldiers, asking for money to purchase leave papers from the Army, pay medical expenses from combat wounds, or to get home from war. The scams are usually sophisticated and involve more than one person to corroborate the fake stories being told.
How to protect yourself
When it comes to finding love online, you must be aware of some of the dangers you could encounter. Using information published by the FTC, the following list highlights how to recognize a scam artist online:
• If a person wants to leave the dating website immediately and use personal email or instant messenger. Don’t immediately trust that someone online is who they say they are. Use the dating website to communicate with your potential sweetheart until you have met in person and feel comfortable with giving any personal information away.
• If a person claims love in a heartbeat. Despite the fact that many people believe in love at first sight, someone claiming love instantly upon connecting with you online is most likely a scam. Don’t fall for this fake love.
• Someone claims to live in the United States, but is traveling or working overseas. Suggest meeting an online suitor in person. If they continue to use the excuse that they are working or traveling overseas, most likely it is a scam.
• If a person plans to visit, but is prevented by a traumatic event or business deal gone sour. Be suspicious , especially if a request for money follows the incident.
• Never wire money to cover the following types of expenses:
— Medical emergencies
— Hotel bills
— Hospital bills for a child or other relative
— Visas or other official documents
— Losses from temporary financial setback
• Be aware of someone asking for money after a mugging or robbery. Someone you meet online should not be asking you for money to get back home or get them out of trouble. Most likely this is a scam, and will result in more requests and more money.
How to report
If you or someone you know has been scammed, or suspect that someone is trying to scam you, you can report it to one or all of the following:
• The dating website
• The Federal Trade Commission
• The FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center
• Your state attorney general
Most reputable online dating websites have safeguards in place to identify questionable profiles and eliminate attempted fraudulent activity. However, if you come across a suspicious profile, it is important to report it immediately.
Although the online dating world has allowed many individuals the opportunity to find love, there is still risk involved. Many people sign up with the intention of finding love and in doing so become vulnerable to those on the other side of the computer. Be aware of the red flags and know when to say no. Don’t just follow your heart on this one.
Stephanie Roberts, CPA, CIA, is a Supervisor with EFP Rotenberg, LLP, Certified Public Accountants and Business Consultants.