Friends and family of romance scam victims sometimes call on security pros to prove their online loves are not who they claim to be. Here’s how to handle the case the right way.
“You gotta help me! My dad is sending her all his money!”
I frequently get requests from friends and readers to help them save a loved one from a romance scam. In most cases, a lonely friend or relative has been contacted by a younger, beautiful online-only personality and is unwaveringly convinced of the person’s sudden, passionate requited love, even when asked for money. Lots of money.
Technically, online dating scams are part of what are known as “advanced fee” scams. The scammer usually requests money to visit the victim, usually to pay for a visa and airfare, but then suddenly runs into other “unexpected” difficulties (arrests, kidnapping, etc.) that cost the victim additional money. The closer the date appears to be getting to the victim, the more unexpected calamities appear. The scammers seem to delight in torturing their victims and seeing just how outrageous they can make the stories be and still get paid.
Many victims lose substantial sums of money, often their entire lifesavings. Some wealthy victims have lost millions of dollars. Many willingly go spending into the poor house selling off every available asset, convinced that their online lover needs just a bit more money to make all their dreams come true.
When the people contacting me look at the emails and other evidence, it’s so obviously a scam they don’t understand how the victim can fall for it. We are all human and are probably overly susceptible to some sort of scam during a low point of our life. A famous quote from Blaise Pascal goes, “The heart has its reasons which the mind knows nothing of.”
Before contacting me, family members and friends have already tried everything they know to convince the victim that what is happening is a scam. The entranced scammer’s target is in what they think is a once-in-a-lifetime, undying love affair that no one else understands. In their mind, they are rescuing a beautiful spirit, in body and soul, from a hellish existence, who can’t wait to marry them. Their love is real, and will stay real until the myth is broken.
How to spot a romance scam
I’ve given those who ask for my assistance enough evidence that convinces the victims that they have been duped and not to be ashamed. Below are nine tell-tale clues to help you spot a dating scam, and what and what not to do to help convince the victim that they are indeed a victim before the money runs out.
1. The scammer is model beautiful
It seems its easier to fall prey to a scammer’s requests for money when those requests are coming from what appears to be a younger and overly attractive amore. The person in the picture usually has perfectly coifed hair, perfect makeup (if a female), perfect eye brows, and dazzling eyes and lips. The scammers almost always copy pictures of people who are professional models or who could easily be professional models. Usually the actual people in the pictures aren’t aware of the scam and aren’t involved in any way.
I’ve sometimes asked the victims, while they are still in denial, why they think this incredibly beautiful, decades younger person would fall in love with them. They often say the scammer is tired of the dating scene, tired of dating other so-called “perfect-looking” people, or all the local dating opportunities are crooks and drunks. This can absolutely be true in real life, but usually the scammers don’t look old enough to have exhausted their normal potential dating pool in their early 20s.
If every picture looks like it came from a fashion magazine, it probably has.
2. The victim has never met the online amore in person
Key to most romance scams is that the victim and the date have never met in person, or if they did, they didn’t look anything like the beautiful person in the photograph. If they’ve Skyped over the internet, the scammer’s voice or accent changes over time. If voice changes are challenged, usually the scammer comes up with a scenario like they have a cold or that their accent changed because they have travelled to a new foreign country and are “unintentionally” picking up a new accent.
3. The online amore is from a foreign country
The scammer is almost always from or traveling in a foreign country. The victim’s lack of familiarity with the scammer’s country lets the scammer make claims that are not easy to verify. For example, the scammer often claims not to have access to a phone even when they have access to the internet. They might say they need to pay a special, expensive black market visa fee to travel to the victim’s country. The distance ensures that it is not easy or cheap for the victim and scammer to meet in person. Most dating scams are perpetuated by foreigners because of the difficulty for victims in pursuing legal solutions when the scam is discovered across international boundaries.
I’ve seen a few dating scams where the scammer claimed to be either an American living in a foreign country or even claim to be a foreigner living in the same country, so it’s not always a foreigner in a foreign country. Usually, they must claim to be a foreigner, which they usually are, so that when the victim and scammer speaks, the victim is expecting the heavy accent they encounter.
4. Initial aggressiveness comes from scammer
Not only are the “dates” super beautiful, but they make most of the initial overtures. They contacted the victim first. They respond very quickly and aggressively. They don’t appear in the slightest to be shy or wary. They are fully committed immediately and ready to make a life with someone they barely know within days. Super beautiful people don’t grow up having to be super aggressive on the dating scene. If anything, they are more wary and selective.
5. The scanner falls in love too fast
Now, I’m known to fall too hard too fast in my real dating life, but if a Victoria Secret-looking model goes out of her way to meet me and then also falls in love with me in a few days over email, my warning bells are going off. I’m charming, but not that charming. I’m not sure how long it should be before the other person says “I love you” on a dating site, but it’s probably longer than a few days or emails.
Potential victims should be especially wary if the scammer is giving them visualizations of love such as, “I can’t wait to marry you and hold your hand to show the whole world how much I love you,” only a few days into the relationship. The scammer wants the victims to visualize these romantic scenarios to play on their emotions to hook them sooner.
6. The scammer wants to move to personal email quickly
No matter what web site you’ve met on (e.g., social media or online dating site), a scammer will want to move the victim to a personal email account that has nothing to do with the original web site you met on. Why? Because the scammer is usually trying to pull off hundreds to thousands of dating scams at once and their current fake personae profile will likely be removed after enough complaints. They need move the victims to an offsite email account where their conversations can be continued in private and without getting interrupted by the authorities.
7. Email address doesn’t match name
For reasons they try to explain away, their email address doesn’t come close to matching their claimed name. I don’t mean that their claimed name is Katrina Korkova and the email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. I mean their claimed name is Katrina Korkova, but their email address is MarinaAnnPopavich1751@gmail.com. If questioned they will say they are using a relative’s email account, using work email, or something like that. Have you ever run into a real-world person that used an email account with someone else’s name embedded in the email address–someone not scamming you?
8. Money, money, money
Finally, and most important, they need money to put off some horrible event or to visit you to share their incredible love. They need money for a sick relative. They need money for a visa. They need money for travel plans. Then after you send all that money, something happens and their visit gets cancelled at the last second. If your date is declaring their true love on day 3 and asking for money on day 4, something is up.
9. All of the above
Some of these things might have happened to you in a real-life, confirmed romance. The difference is that all or almost all of these things are true, not just a few. If all these traits are true of an online romance, then be very suspicious.
How do you prove a dating scam?
What can you do to prove to victims that they are being scammed. First, let them read this article or any of the many others like it on the internet. If you search on “date scams,” you will find many articles, websites, and books dedicated to the subject.
Surprisingly, some of the people trying to dupe victims are also selling the remedies. They make money on both sides of the transaction. They dupe victims into sending money, and then sell books and research services to prove the scams are not being truthful. Say what you will, but you’ve got to admire their entrepreneurship. One legitimate site that seems to come up a lot is Romance Scam.
1. Ask for an updated photo
I tell all potential victims to ask for an updated photo of them that has today’s date somewhere in the photo, like from a local newspaper. Or if the “date” says they love something (example, teddy bears), ask for a photo of that something being held up in a particular way (e.g., next to their face). Or send them flowers, and ask for a photo of them with your sent flowers (assuming the delivery can be made…it often can’t be).
If they protest, tell them that your best friend/parent/child doesn’t believe that they are real and that you want proof just to shut them up. A real date that wanted to spend the rest of their life with someone would have no problem doing an updated, custom request photo.
2. Do image and text searches
The victim always has one or more photos of the potential scammer. Using Bing (choose Search by Image by clicking on the camera icon under the Image search subsection) or Google, do an Image search using a specific photo. Put in any keywords to narrow down the search.
For example, in a recent case, I saw that all the books on a bookshelf behind the purported Spanish young lady happened to be in Italian. She was also wearing a beautiful golden-leaved necklace choker and had very distinct high-arching eyebrows. When I did an image search with different sets of keywords, including the scammer’s claimed name and combinations of the words ‘Spanish’, ‘Italian’, ‘gold leaf jewelry’, ‘necklace’ and ‘eyebrows’, I didn’t get any confirmation hits back until I cropped various parts of the photo.
As I was changing the cropping marks to different locations, other pictures of the scammer popped up. Then I found the real name of the person whose pictures were being used, along with their real Facebook, Instagram, and other social media accounts (she was a professional model, of course). Her real name did not match the scammer’s claimed name or email address. Interestingly, in this latest particular example, the pictures were from a Slovakian model hanging out in Switzerland, but she must have some Italian interactions because many of her social media posts and photos contained Italian, just like the victim’s photos revealed.
The victim usually has lots of romantic-sounding emails from the scammer. Use some of the most romantic passages and search on that text. When I searched on, “I can’t wait to hold your hand and show the whole world I love you,” it returned many hits from scam letter sites. The victim I was helping at the time was emotionally over-wrought when I revealed that the text he clung to as proof of his real love turned out to show up in tens of thousands of different scam letters from women using the same pictures but with different names.
3. Confront the victim with the evidence
I’ve yet to meet the victim that wanted to believe that they had been scammed, but if you show them enough evidence (e.g., other photos from different names and countries) that their one and only true love isn’t real love, they usually come back to reality. Not always. I’ve read of a few cases where the loved ones had to legally take away the victim’s ability to send more money to the scammers because the victim refused to believe overwhelming evidence.
What to do after you prove the dating scam
Try to recover sent money – Any monies sent are usually lost forever and the victim just has to chock it up to a hard lesson learned. If they sent personally identifiable information (such as credit card or bank account numbers), they should take steps to prevent more fraud. In a few limited cases, they might be able to prove fraud and get some of the spent money back, although I’ve yet to see any successes.
Get fake profiles shut down – Report any confirmed fake identities to the websites and email companies that were involved. With dating scams so popular, the process is usually automated. Simply go to the social media site and look for a Report Fake Profile button, and the rest happens automatically.
Report any monetary losses to authorities – Law enforcement will not do anything to get the victim’s money back unless the loss was hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars. Even then, they probably can’t get the money back. Still, it can’t hurt to report the scam and resulting losses to federal authorities (e.g., FBI or FCC), just to make sure there is an official record of the loss. Plus, it lets the authorities stay up on the amount and type of crime.
What not to do once you prove a date scam
Don’t communicate further with the scammer – There is no use in arguing with scammers. They will never come clean. They will continue to claim they are real and plead with fake crocodile tears that the victim is doing the wrong thing. If they are finally convinced the victim will not send money, they will simply end further communications or harass the victim a bit further and then end further communications. Take the high road. There is nothing to be gained by further confronting these types of people.
Don’t try to locate scammers – I’ve heard of a few victims that learned enough real information that they wanted to confront the scammer in person, in the scammer’s country of origin. This is a very bad idea! Of the few that I know about, the outcome wasn’t good. At least a few victims have been apparently murdered. There is nothing good going to happen by traveling to the scammer’s country where the victim has no citizen rights or protection. Victims should take their losses and lessons and keep their life.
Don’t shame the victim – Lastly, don’t share the victim. I’ve been doing computer security for over 30 years, and I’ve learned that that falling victim to a scam is not an IQ test. The brightest, smartest, richest people on our planet have been duped by dating scams. Just search on “dating scam lost million dollars” to see the long list of millionaires that have lost money to fake paramours. The duped have included scientists, Fortune 500 businessmen, doctors, lawyers, and people of all ages.
Once you prove to your family member or loved one that they’ve been scammed, they will be embarrassed enough. Give them a hug, and maybe help them find real love, because that person is out there for them as well if they look in the right places.