What is romance fraud?
Dating scams (also known as romance scams) is a type of fraud where criminals begin relationships with people online, befriending those looking for love before ultimately exploiting their trust to make money.
Often it involves tricking victims into sending money for an 'emergency', but can also see the victim being blackmailed over an intimate photo or video ("sextortion"), or being persuaded to act as a unwitting money mule by transferring money or goods on the criminals behalf.
It's known to affect both men & women equally.
Spotting a fraudster
If you've started an online relationship and are a little suspicious, or are concerned about a friend's online date, then look out for any of these telltale signs:
Moving the conversation
- All good dating websites have systems in place to try to spot scams. Fraudsters hate this (naturally!) and try to quickly move conversations onto other platforms, such as email or WhatsApp.
Avoiding questions about themselves
- Dating scammers often talk to many potential victims at once, so to avoid tripping themselves up they'll keep talk about "themselves" to a minimum. They try to avoid answering questions and instead focus on attempting to make you feel special - and who doesn't like it when someone shows a lot of interest in us?
Inconsistencies in what they're saying
- Maintaining a false persona is difficult and the scammer will sometimes make mistakes. They might occasionally contradict themselves, or even describe something that's completely contrary to their profile.
Are they a travelling businessman or someone from the military?
- These are two very popular types of profile used by fraudsters as it presents the perfect cover story for not being able to meet up. It also makes the urgent request for a money transfer to help them return home - or get medical treatment in a foreign country - after having been "mugged" that much more plausible.
- Is your date just *too* perfect? Of course near-flawless people do exist (like me of course!) but all of us have some sort of flaw. Criminals regularly use photos of models or other highly attractive people to grab our attention, whilst their descriptions (and ongoing conversations) are invented to sound as attractive as they can be.
Pushing for personal information
- Beware of what personal information you give to the person you're speaking with; the more information you give them the more research they can do on you, to customise their persona into someone they think you're more likely to be attracted to.
- Of course in a real relationship you share information, but if they're too pushy or ask for too much too soon then it's another red flag.
Unwilling to meet or speak
- All scammers know that the game would be up if you ever met in person, and even phone calls can be tricky (their accent may not be what you're expecting!). They'll therefore come up with all sorts of excuses to avoid meeting up or speaking.
- And if you do manage to talk on the phone, in reality the person on the other end of the line may be in a call centre created specifically for these scams, with your "date" having been handed notes on all of your conversations to help them stay in character. It's big business!
If you've got suspicions about someone but still want to give them the benefit of the doubt then of course there's no harm in carrying on talking to them - they may well be genuine & end up being the love of your life! Just be aware of the warning signs, don't let yourself get too emotionally close until you've met (easier said than done), and never ever give them any money. Talking about your concerns with a friend can also help you with an objective opinion.
Prevent yourself falling victim
The end goal of the scammer is to make money from you. Whether you have concerns that someone may be a scammer, or even if you entirely trust your online date, there are a few basic precautions you should always take to avoid being scammed.
Never provide any money
- No matter how tragic or emotional the sob story they give you, or how long you've been talking for (some scams take months to run their course), never ever transfer any money to someone you've never met.
- The requests for money often start small to lure you in gradually (you may try to justify it to yourself with "a little money can't hurt, right?"), before getting bigger and rapidly accumulating until you suddenly find yourself in deep. Fraudsters know that once someone has given even a tiny amount that they're more likely to keep on giving - it's very common for the fraudster to promise that they'll repay you, but that they just need this one last payment to get themselves out of a situation before they can access their money to repay you.
- Often the reason given will be that the money is for some sort of urgent loan or medical emergency, or anything else that will make you feel guilty about for not helping them with. They exploit the fact that you've already invested so much time & emotion into the relationship and would find it hard to refuse.
- They even have responses ready for if you say you've not got any money, and have been known to help victims arrange credit.
Don't send any intimate photos of yourself
- Blackmail is becoming more prevalent. Some fraudsters earn your trust enough to ask for intimate photos or videos - before suddenly revealing their true nature and threatening to send it to all your family, friends & colleagues unless you pay a fee (this is known as "sextortion").
- Don't give them the ability to do this in the first place - always make sure you've met them first before becoming intimate.
Avoid transferring any money or goods for them
- Money launderers have been known to use dating websites to find money mules. Of course the victim may not realise they're doing anything illegal - but that's no defence for a judge!
- Always refuse to accept any money or goods for you to move elsewhere. The reasons they give may be particularly creative, but it's always a cover for their criminal activity. Report any such requests to the police straight away.
If you're reading this page then you may already suspect that a person you're talking to isn't neccessarily who they say they are. Quite often scammers will lift profile photos from the internet and simply re-use profiles that they know work. The great thing is that internet search engines are your friend here!
Do a web search on their profile photo
- Fraudsters use photos of attractive people that they find online. The good news is that it's now easy to do a reverse web-search of images to find where else the same photo might exist.
- Start by saving your date's profile photo to your computer (right click on the image and click "save as.." or "save picture as..." - it doesn't matter whereabouts on your computer you save it to).
- Next go to Google Images. In the search bar click on the icon of a camera, and upload the photo from your PC.
- If you find the exact same photo attached to another dating profile, or to a completely unrelated person, then alarm bells should start ringing.
Run their profile through search engines
- Do a web search on their name with keywords such as "dating fraud" or "romance scam" added, for example "joe bloggs dating scam".
- Also try taking bits of text from their profile and/or their messages to you, and search for that online (add quote marks around it when you copy it into a search engine). Sometimes you'll find that the scammers have re-used the same profile details before and that other victims are talking about them online.
- Note that the lack of any results on these searches won't mean they're genuine - they may have created a unique profile - but if you do find any evidence against them then it's almost certain they are a criminal.
Subtly challenge them
If you want to be subtle and challenge your date without being obvious that you suspect them, then maybe ask for a photo of them in a certain pose or scenario (such as doing their hobby), or any other photo with a unique request to it which they'll need to take specially. With imagination you can make this sound romantic!
If the dating profile photo that they used was stolen from someone else then they'll have difficulty meeting your request, and you may find them making excuses as to why they can't (for example if they claim to be in the military they'll probably claim operational secrecy forbids them taking photos). This should raise a major red flag if they avoid sending you this photo.
Be aware though of the possibility of photoshopping - it's known that some scammers have stock photos of models holding up blank signs onto which they can photoshop anything, such as a message with your name on, or that they'll photoshop a head onto a photo of someone else entirely. Ask instead for an action shot or them doing something unusual.
If you are being scammed...
So if by now you're fairly sure you're internet date isn't who they say they are, then what?
The first - and obvious - step is to simply not make any more payments, no matter how much you may already have paid out.
If you've recently transferred any money, and there's a chance that it might not yet have gone through, then contact your bank immediately to see if the transaction can be stopped.
Take copies of all evidence
Make sure you have copies of all evidence - don't delete anything as you may want this for any future action.
- Try to take copies of all the communication you've had with your date, whether that was by email, text, Facebook or WhatsApp, or via a dating website. Print out & store copies where possible or save screenshots, as well as making a note of any contact details you have for them.
Original dating profile:
- If you've still got access to it too then print out a copy of your date's original profile from the dating or social media website where you met.
Copy and store this evidence safely before challenging them - they'll likely close their profile and immediately delete conversations as soon as you do this.
As soon as a fraudster realises they'll get nothing from you they'll move on to the next victim. You must report them as soon as you can so that steps can be taken to prevent others from falling victim too.
To the dating site:
- Many dating websites allow you to report someone directly from within their profile. If not then check out the help section on the website for how to report them, or follow the help links below if you met on one of these sites:
To the authorities:
- Even though much of this fraud occurs abroad it's still worthwhile reporting it to the authorities - they can work with the dating website and other organisations to try to prevent others from becoming victims too.
- Depending on which country you're from will affect how you report the crime. Some common agencies are below:
Beware of follow up scams
If you have lost money to romance fraud then make sure to be alert to any follow up scams - some victims have reported being approached with offers of help to recover lost money. Whoever they're posing as don't believe it - it's yet another scam where they'll ask for an advance fee which you won't see again. They may also target you again with another dating profile, so be on your guard.
Being scammed can hurt. It can easily affect our pride & cause embarassment, not to mention the feelings of betrayal & disappointment at discovering that someone we were opening our heart to - and perhaps hoping for a future with - turned out to not really exist at all.
It's important to know that you are not alone. These fraudsters are very good at what they do, with tens of thousands of people being scammed each year.
Contact a victim support organisation in your country for help; many are well equipped to help anyone affected by these types of scams and can provide both moral and practical support.
Make sure you confide in at least one close friend to help you through it too - don't ever feel ashamed to admit to anyone that you've been affected.
For reassurance that you're not alone you could try watching (if you're able to access it in your region) the BBC show For Love Or Money; a documentary series specifically on the topic of dating scams.