The internet has revolutionized the world of dating, but it is also a new breeding ground for scams. The FBI says romance scams are rampant online, with an estimated $230 million in losses last year.
“Even in the last decade, so many more people meet other people online for the purpose of dating,” said New York attorney Jonathan Hood, who has written extensively on internet fraud. “It just makes it so much easier for people to connect without ever meeting in person, and sort of as a result, never really verifying that the other person is who they say they are.”
In the latest twist, reported on the next episode of CNBC’s “American Greed,” con artists are exploiting Americans’ respect for the military.
“The M.O. is all the same,” said Christopher Grey of the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command. “I’m a single father. I’m a widower. I’m raising a five-year-old girl. And they play on the emotions of the victims. Most people are very trusting of U.S. military personnel.”
“I think there’s … something to be said for a man in uniform. I mean, everybody loves a man in uniform, right?” said Amy Bushatz, a reporter and editor for Military.com.
Illinois chiropractor Lilo Schuster fell for it, and fell hard. She began a relationship online with a military officer serving in Afghanistan named Adam Smith.
“He has a child and he’s in Afghanistan and he’s fighting the terrorists and he’s a pilot, and I thought my prayers had been answered,” Schuster said.
The relationship continued to blossom online. Eventually, Smith asked Schuster to wire him some money to help support his daughter. Schuster complied, and the requests continued. She had sent him nearly $23,000 before she finally realized the whole thing was a scam.
“I was pretty upset because I felt so excited that I thought that I had met somebody,” she said. “I was really embarrassed that I could let this happen to me.”
Before you say to yourself, “That could never happen to me,” consider the fact that the FBI recorded some 15,000 romance scams last year, a jump of 2,500 from the year before. And that is just the scams reported to the feds.
Because it is practically impossible nowadays to date without some use of the internet, experts warn that you need to take precautions before jumping into the dating game.
Keep your guard up
We love to post on social media about our hopes, our dreams, our passions and our politics. If you are also using an online dating site, it is easy for a scam artist to cross-check your name with your Facebook profile. Suddenly, you and your new online beau have an “uncanny” connection. But in fact, that person is a con artist who learned about your love for cats, or Jane Austen, or the U.S. military by reading your social media posts.
Be careful about how much you reveal about yourself online. The FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center said in an alert earlier this year that users of social media and online dating sites should always assume that con artists are watching, and trolling for victims.
“The criminals who carry out romance scams are experts at what they do,” the agency says. “They spend hours honing their skills and sometimes keep journals on their victims to better understand how to manipulate and exploit them.”
Meet in person
Take a close look at your new friend’s online profile picture. Does it look a bit too polished? If so, it could be a stock photo, or a picture that a scam artist took from someplace else.
One way to check is to do a reverse image search on Google. In the search box, click on the camera icon. It will allow you to either upload the profile photo or paste it directly from the web site.
“If you get a million results for it, chances are it’s some kind of a stock photo,” Hood said.
Of course, the best way to tell if the person you are dealing with is real is to meet in person. Moving your relationship from virtual to real is a big step. But it is a necessary one in order to make certain that your new love is for real. Don’t be shy. Ask to meet, at least in a video chat. If your new suitor is reluctant, beware.
“If they say, ‘I’m not ready to meet you in person,’ or ‘I want to continue just chatting online,’ that could be trouble,” Hood said.
If you are not yet comfortable meeting your new friend in person, Hood says to at least try to move away from the confines of the dating site by getting their email address or connecting on Facebook. That makes it harder for scam artists to hide.
“If you start getting, ‘I’m not sure that I’m comfortable with that yet,’ it doesn’t mean that they’re a scammer, but in my mind it would raise some red flags,” Hood said.
At the same time, however, the FBI says to beware of an online suitor who quickly seeks to lure you “offline” or away from the dating site. That could be a sign that they want to scam you.
Pay attention to your love interest’s use of the language, both in their online profile and in chats and emails. You may find telltale signs of a scam.
“One sign is if there is weird spelling or punctuation,” Hood said. “A lot of times English isn’t somebody’s first language, so that’s completely understandable. (But) if somebody says that they’re U.S.-born and their writing just doesn’t feel like that of a native-born person, that could be a red flag.”
That is because online dating scams in particular frequently originate overseas.
“From just a purely legal perspective, it’s more difficult to prosecute people for doing this overseas,” Hood said. “A lot of countries have economic conditions that drive people to do these types of things. And I think as a result of that, there’s a market for it and it’s easier for people to get sort of teams of people lined up to do these types of scams.”
The reddest flag
Skilled scam artists are patient. They will invest months into a relationship, seemingly asking for nothing in return. Then, when you are finally all in, they spring their trap. They ask for money, like “Adam Smith” did with Lilo Schuster. She admits she never saw it coming.
“You feel like you’re contributing to your relationship, that you’re helping his daughter be able to go on a trip that he couldn’t provide for her, but, you know, he’ll pay me back is what he had said,” she recalled.
Experts agree. If someone you are dating — online or otherwise — asks you for money, do not give it.
“I would say, 99-plus percent of the time, the answer would be, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t send you any money.’ I can’t really envision a scenario when that’s anything other than a scam,” Hood said.
If you suspect someone is trying to scam you, report your concerns to the dating site. Reputable sites will shut down accounts that are engaging in questionable activity. You should also consider blocking the person from further contact with you.
If you think you have already been scammed, file a report with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center. It could help stop a fraudster in his cruel and dastardly tracks.
Learn about the latest twists in online dating scams on the next all-new episode of “American Greed,” Monday, Aug. 28 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on CNBC.