I recently spotted Mr. Right on an online dating site. He was adorable, with big hazel eyes and salt-and-pepper hair. His profile said he was a widower and a veterinarian who travels, reads poetry and loves to shop.
I worked up the nerve to write him and was thrilled when he replied, saying he was flattered to receive my email. He told me he is a great cook (perfect), loves the beach (ditto) and tries to work out but isn’t always consistent (Hello, soul mate!). He said he hoped to hear from me again soon.
Imagine my heartbreak when I discovered he doesn’t exist.
I know many people on dating websites tell little white lies—putting a positive spin on their age, weight, income or the reason their last relationship broke up. But I’ve been surprised to discover that some profiles are fakes, created by scammers looking to defraud individuals. In many cases they are able to take in sophisticated victims, people who would never fall for one of those emails from Nigeria telling you how to claim your inheritance.
An Ounce of Prevention…
How can you protect yourself from online-dating scams? Here are some tips:
- Pay attention to language. Is there non-standard English or flowery phrasing that isn’t the norm where you live? These are big red flags.
- Use search engines. Check for the person on social networking sites, such as Facebook. You also can plug in passages from a profile on a dating site or an entire email message on Google or Bing. And you can search for any sobstory scenario you hear, to see if it is common.
- Check out the person’s photos. On tineye.com you can upload a picture and find out information about where on the Internet that photo has appeared.
- Stick to paid online dating sites. Paid sites have a paper trail of their members in the form of credit card information.
- Download security software onto your smartphone and tablet. Authorities are seeing an increase in attacks against routers, says Pittsburgh-based Adam Palmer, lead cybersecurity advisor at security software company Norton.
- Ask for more information before sharing your email or phone number. Where does this person live and work? Make sure his Facebook page matches what he’s telling you.
- Get on the phone as soon as possible. ‘Sure, you’ll be nervous, but you can probably tell within 30 seconds if someone is for real,’ says Ross Williams, Global Personals CEO.
- And this, too: Don’t give money to a stranger.
After breaking up with his long-time girlfriend last year, the Washington, D.C.-based senior manager at an import-export company says he decided to try his chances on dating site eHarmony. Before long, he connected with a woman he says looked like a model. She said she was 28 and worked for a British travel company. “I was very flattered that a younger, attractive woman started paying me attention,” recalls Mr. Samuels, 45.
For two months, Mr. Samuels and the woman chatted on email and occasionally on the phone or Skype, discussing their families, jobs and interests. They never met in person. Then one day, she wrote and said her mother was very sick and she was trying to raise money to pay the hospital bill. She asked for $5,000. Mr. Samuels wired it to her. “I thought I was being the protector,” he says.
Almost immediately, the woman’s profile disappeared from the site. Mr. Samuels couldn’t reach her when he tried to write or call. “I was an idiot, and I got scammed,” he says. He didn’t hear from her again. EHarmony spokesman Paul Breton says the company tries to educate members about safety, and a full-time team reviews profiles using technology and their instincts.
How can smart people get fooled so easily? Psychologists blame what they call the “halo effect.” It’s what happens when we notice something we like about a person—often it’s physical beauty—and then start imagining other positive qualities. It’s the reason good-looking people often are paid more than average-looking people, and it happens all the time in online dating. We see an attractive person, or read an interesting profile, and soon we are projecting onto that person who we are looking for, letting our guard down, ignoring red flags. Online scammers love the halo effect.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation says it gets thousands of complaints a year from people who have been fleeced by people they met on dating sites. The online dating industry says scammers represent a small fraction of all profiles. “But scammers are aggressive,” says
an industry consultant who has worked with Cupid and PlentyofFish.
A lawsuit filed in December seeking class-action status in U.S. District Court in Dallas alleges that more than half the profiles on Match.com are “inactive, fake or fraudulent.” Responding to questions about the lawsuit, Match.com president
said the site has 1.9 million paid subscribers, fraud happens to very few of them and a full-time fraud-prevention team works to identify and block fake profiles.
At the FBI, one Cyber Division section chief,
says most scammers operate from abroad, especially West Africa and the former Soviet republics. In a typical scenario, the scammer creates a fake profile using photos of an attractive individual, in many cases lifted off social-networking sites. Often, the written part of the profile is copied verbatim from a real profile or a recycled template. Almost always, it is designed to tug at the heartstrings, the FBI says.
Scammers want to make an emotional connection. At first, they flatter and fawn. Once you are hooked, they hit you with some variation of several well-worn sob stories, Mr. Gallagher says. Sometimes they say they live abroad and desperately want to visit you, but their country’s banking system is broken. Or they’re at the airport and their credit card has been declined. Some scammers even pretend to be U.S. military service members trying to get back home and low on cash. Their stories all end in same place: Please wire money, and they will pay you back.
“They present themselves as being vulnerable, but they are really looking for someone who is more vulnerable,” Mr. Gallagher says.
Online-dating sites use three lines of defense against scammers. There’s technology: Typically, an automated system will track how many messages a profile sends per hour, or searches for words like “wire.” A security team may scan suspicious profiles. Most reputable sites encourage users to flag inappropriate behavior, including money requests.
Now, some online-dating sites are adding more exclusivity and security. At IvyDate.com and DateHarvardsq.com, which launched in the past year, a membership committee reviews every profile and photo submitted to check for grammar, spelling and other inconsistencies suggesting the works of an overseas scammer unfamiliar with English. “You have to create the right environment,” says
co-founder of the sites. “Just like in the off-line world, people are looking to go to the right neighborhood to meet the right people.”
Global Personals, the British owner of U.S. sites including Texasdating.com and Theseniordatingagency.com, says it has a person—not a computer—check every photo, profile and message. The company says it gets 8,000 new members a day of which about a dozen are scammers whose profiles it pulls down immediately. On Iloveyouraccent.com, members can opt to pay for a background check of anyone on the site.
Match.com, on its website, identifies some other common red flags: Proceed with caution with anyone who claims to be recently widowed or an American working overseas, or who quickly asks to communicate on an outside email or messaging system. In April, after it was named in a lawsuit filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court by a woman alleging she was sexually assaulted by a man she met through the site, Match.com said it will start checking existing and new members against a national sex offenders registry—a measure it says it has been evaluating for years. “While these checks may help in certain instances, they remain highly flawed, and it is critical that this effort does not provide a false sense of security to our members,” the company said in a statement.
And of course, screening for sex offenders won’t do much to weed out scammers. Where does that leave you?
Rule No. 1: Trust your gut. That’s what I did when bits of Mr. I-Love-to-Shop’s story weren’t adding up, such as this, from one of his emails: “I can’t stop starring at you and i don’t think any man with his right sense can stop too. You astonish.” And this: “I am a cleaning nut!! On my days off work I crank up the music, forget about everything else, and make my house smell and look prettyful.”
When I searched for him on the Internet, I found he wasn’t on Facebook. He wasn’t a licensed veterinarian in the city where he said he worked. I copied much of one of his long email messages into Google. Voilà! The entire email came up on several websites detailing “romance scams.” So much for Mr. Right. Delete.
—Email Elizabeth Bernstein at Bonds@wsj.com or follow her column at www.Facebook.com/EBernsteinWSJ.
Corrections & Amplifications
Online dating website Global Personals says it gets more than 8,000 new members a day of which about a dozen are scammers whose profiles it pulls down immediately. A previous version of this column said the website has total membership of 8,000 and identifies about a dozen scammers a day and pulls their profiles down immediately.
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