Online dating claims to have solved the issue of being single on Valentine's Day. According to Match, eHarmony and Tinder, you only need to sign up to their website or app to find love and companionship. Apparently your sweetheart is in the ether, waiting for you to swipe right.
Unfortunately, scammers have come up with increasingly creative ways to use our affections against us. Catfishing, sextortion and romance fraud are big business for online offenders, and you need to watch out for all of them if you're dating online.
Catfishing is arguably the least harmful way you can be duped online. If you've seen the film Catfish (or the subsequent TV show) you'll know that the scam essentially rests on a single person using a fictional persona to date online.
The catfish could be hiding their identity for any number of reasons; the most hurtful being boredom or monetary gain. If they do ask you for money, it's likely to be relatively small amounts. They may also ask you to send them gifts.
Romance fraud, or online dating fraud is a little more dangerous. You may be conned by one perpetrator or a team of scammers, but they'll put in the hours to gain your trust (and love) before asking for the cash.
These people often claim to be widows or widowers with children, and pretend to be younger than their victims. Their profile will say that they live in the UK, have a high paying job and are currently out of the country on business. They'll profess to being in love with you incredibly quickly.
When they do finally ask for the money (after a few weeks, or sometimes months) it will be for something important like a health or travel issue - and it will be urgent.
The hard part of this scam is that you get stung twice; when they vanish without a trace you've lost your money, and your relationship. For this reason many victims keep sending money, unwilling or unable to accept that their online relationship is a lie.
One of the bleakest forms of online dating exploitation is also the fastest. Sextortion starts with a provocative conversation lead by the perpetrator (although this is often a robot, delivering a script) which very quickly escalates into the perpetrator sending the victim a 'private' album of photos.
The victim is then encouraged to send compromising photos or videos of themselves back in return. At this point the conversation takes a nasty turn, with a real scammer threatening the victim into sending them money, or risk the photos being distributed online.
Stay safe, get savvy
The easiest way to avoid these scams is to always stay alert when talking to someone new. Research your sweetheart, get vigilant, and call out anything that sets alarm bells ringing.
1. Do an image search of their photos
To check whether the pictures of a person you're dating are copied from somewhere, just pop them in Google's Image search bar. If you find your sweetie tagged as someone else on a public social media profile, or the photo appears on multiple dating sites under different profiles, it's probably a scam.
2. Pick up the phone, or hit video chat
It's 2017; it's unlikely that someone savvy enough to use a dating site doesn't have a mobile phone or a webcam. If they are happy to telephone, listen carefully to their voice. Do they sound like the right age, gender and ethnicity? If not, this should be a red flag.
Catfishers and romance fraudsters never want to go on webcam (for obvious reasons), and will do anything to convince you that the reason they can't video chat is legitimate. If the reason does sound genuine, ask them to send a photograph of themselves, holding up a piece of paper with your name written on it. If they still protest, you might have yourself a scammer.
3. Check their grammar
If the person that you're dating claims to be a native English speaker, they should have very little problem with the English language. If they frequently get pronouns like him/her and she/he mixed up, or misspell seemingly simple words, then something isn't right.
4. Stay on the dating site
Scammers often try to move conversation to text or email fairly early on. The reason for this is that the dating sites are moderated, and monitored for these sorts of people. Be wary of anyone who immediately encourages you to leave the site.
5. Be on the lookout for requests and inaccuracies
Any requests to move or send money should seriously concern you. But you should also be vigilant about their 'story'; if parts of their personal life seem to chop or change, if details are altered or you notice contradictions, be on your guard.
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