When Melinda Molin realized that the man she was falling in love with, Frank Lamberg, was trying to scam her, she did not break down right away.
Molin, 65, is a retired trauma and breast surgeon who lives in Portland, Maine. She was trained to tackle problems first and emotions later. After Lamberg sent Molin an email that she said sounded like it was written by a different person — asking if she could serve as his proxy to a business deal, talking about oil moguls, fund management and consultancy arrangements — she emailed Jdate and asked for a refund.
She told the company she had spent her membership only talking to one man, who at first chatted with her over emails about his dog, Vanilla, admitted to falling asleep on the couch after dinner, and wondered whether he would be able to practice his golf game during the pandemic — but later tried to rope her into a business agreement. Molin called Jdate and found out that the platform had previously removed Lamberg’s profile from the platform for violating its terms and conditions, but had failed to notify her.
She had, meanwhile, continued her correspondence off the platform with what is likely a team of fraudsters operating behind the shell of a Jewish widower named Frank. She said the company would not tell her when it removed his profile.
“That’s when I went absolutely insane inside,” she said in an interview.
Scams are ubiquitous in online dating. Experts said that participants on sites like Jdate, which are known in the industry as “affinity” sites because they are aimed at consumers looking for people from a shared background, are particularly vulnerable. Yet Jdate does not take the same precautions as some of its peers serving the general population.
Amy Nofziger, the director of the AARP Fraud Watch Network, said scammers know that it’s easier to form bonds of trust with users who think they’re talking to someone of the same faith background.
“It’s the same reason why in non-Covid times we see a lot of affinity fraud in churches and synagogues and other places of worship with investment scams,” she said. “Bernie Madoff — he had an affinity in the Jewish religion, and that’s why a lot of his victims were of the same faith, because they had inherent trust in him.”
Jdate does take action after it removes a user: It “quarantines” the account and deletes that user’s messages from the inboxes of others on the platform. That way, the banned party can’t contact anyone through Jdate, or be contacted through Jdate, said the Jdate and Spark Networks Press Team in an email.
“We’re only able to follow up on contact that happens within the Jdate platform,” the email said.
Jdate and Spark Networks did not respond to follow-up questions about whether the platform expects correspondence will eventually move to phone or email, why the company does not notify users about possible fraudsters beyond deleting sent messages or how many scammers have been discovered on the platform over the last five years.
Jdate was founded in 1997, the basis for a parent company called MatchNet, by childhood friends Alon Carmel and Joe Shapira. In 2001, they launched Christian Mingle, and four years later, MatchNet changed its name to Spark Networks. In 2006, after Carmel left the company, Shapira began selling his shares. Spark Networks went public in 2007.
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After a period of decline over the last few years, the company is seeing a boom in registrations. The average number of paying subscribers increased to 915,000 in the first half of 2020, compared to 445,000 in the same period of 2019, according to the company’s financial reports.
Indeed, because of the pandemic, more and more people are flocking to online dating websites like Jdate. And as online dating ratchets up, so do romance scams, which are widespread on platforms from Match to Facebook to Words with Friends, costing more than 25,000 consumers about $200 million in 2019 — up nearly 40% since 2018, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
Yet on Jdate, users have had a variety of experiences, according to Reddit users who responded to a Forward query about whether Jdate worked for them. Some said they found their spouses; others that the site has generated a reputation for being riddled with scammers and fake profiles.
“I met my wife on Jdate and so did almost every Jewish guy friend of mine who married-in,” said one user, using a colloquial term for marrying another Jewish person.
Spark Networks, Match, eHarmony and other dating platforms all provide safety tips, recommending users steer clear of suitors who claim to be abroad, who ask for financial help or who try to immediately take conversations off the platform.
And Molin took precautions after meeting the man she thought was Frank Lamberg on Jdate in July. She kept initial communication to Jdate and switched to email after some back and forth. She had a financial advisor look into Lamberg, who found his LinkedIn profile. They had a short video chat over WhatsApp during which Lamberg’s sound was garbled, but he looked like the man in his profile. They spoke with relative frequency on the phone.
Molin is divorced and Lamberg claimed to be a widower, and after one heavy call with chatter about emotional baggage, trust issues and relationship history, five minutes later, he called her back.
“I said ‘Frank, did you butt dial me?’ And he said no,” said Molin. “He said, ‘I wanted to call you back because it’s been a long time since I’ve done this, and I want to make sure that you tell me if there are things you need that I’m not doing right.’”
This emotional intelligence is part of the reason Molin fell for Lamberg. But as it turned out, that was all part of the plan.
A few weeks later, Lamberg claimed to take a business trip to Europe and called Molin asking if she had received a time-sensitive email. He was forceful, stressing that she needed to look right away. He needed her to send over some information to be part of a business deal. The jig was up.
This might not have happened on eharmony or Match.
Unlike its peers, Spark Networks, which runs Jdate, Jswipe, ChristianMingle and Silver Singles, among other sites, does not notify users by phone or email if someone that they’ve corresponded with through the app has had their profile quarantined, or removed from the site.
Both Match and eharmony email users — in fact, prior to her Jdate scam, Molin was notified by email that one of her matches on the latter site was removed from the platform.
“It was really sucky and I was falling in love and I was having all sorts of fantasies about how, finally, I was going to have love in my life,” Molin said. “I lost that to a cabal that was not a real person, and everybody in that cabal wakes up every day and a good day for them is when they can successfully abuse another person.”
She’s not alone.
Jdate’s parent company, Spark Networks, was sued by a ChristianMingle user named Shelli Nichols in 2014 and settled for an unknown amount after she gave a scammer $73,430; he had been removed from the platform but she was not notified. Two years later, an NBC News affiliate in California covered a story of a woman who was nearly scammed, only to complain to Jdate and find out her scammer had been previously removed from the platform.
Neither eharmony nor Match, which also runs Tinder, OkCupid, Hinge and Plenty Of Fish, responded to requests for comment.
Molin is wary, and has unsubscribed from all dating sites. But she hasn’t given up on her fantasies. She has been talking to someone she met on Match before she left the platform, who was also scammed — he met a woman who said she was stuck in the Rome airport and needed a wire transfer.
“It feels like the first normal conversation I’ve had with a man on the internet since I started this whole process,” she said.
Report romance scams to the Federal Trade Commission at this link.
Molly Boigon is an investigative reporter at the Forward. Contact her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @MollyBoigon.