Tips to dodge the online dating cheats

While a sea of red and pink paper Valentines still keeps card shops in business, online dating has become the modern go-to option for many of those looking for love.

 Read our article on 'The trust cost of finding love' for the low-down on online dating sites.

But while the number of dating sites has rocketed, so too have the incidences of fraud.

Recent figures from the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau (NFIB) show that online dating fraud is on the rise, with one case being reported every three hours – an increase of 32% between January 2013 and December 2015.

In addition, figures released just this month (February 2016) by the NFIB show that between 2015 and 2016, nearly £40 million was lost through dating fraud – and there is wide belief that due to embarrassment in reporting such crime, this figure may actually be lower than the reality. The average amount lost per case is £10,000.

Romance scams take many different forms, but often the most heart-wrenching cases involve singletons meeting people through internet chatrooms or dating sites. In fact, NFIB findings show that 85% of dating scams in 2014 stemmed from online dating sites or forums.

“While we regularly hear good news stories about couples meeting online or via dating apps, these findings show there is an increasing problem with the number of cyber criminals out there who are looking to target vulnerable people for significant financial gain,” says Tony Neate from GetSafeOnline – a government backed information resource on fraud and identity theft.

“£10k is a staggering amount for the average online dater to lose to a fraudster who they’ve been led to believe is the real deal. It’s not just the financial loss though; dating fraud can have a huge emotional impact on a victim too. We’ve spoken to people who’ve lost everything,” he adds.

As well as being hit financially, many victims have to face the emotional impact of finding out that the person they fell for is just a trickster who wanted their money.

Last year’s report from the NFIB showed that 57% of all reported crimes related to online dating were by women.

This year’s report meanwhile, shows that between 1 April 2015 and 31 March 2016, a quarter of victims were in their 50s – and that the average age of a dating fraud victim was 49.

For example, David, who is 58, came across somebody he thought was an old friend. She asked him to send £500 towards a plane ticket that she needed to buy urgently. This ‘old friend’ sent David multiple articles of proof, including copies of immigration papers, a passport and a plane ticket. The situation was eventually revealed to be part of a scam worth a total of £7 million – with £15,000 of that being from David.

In his own words: “I was devastated by what happened to me and it’s massively changed my life. I don’t feel like I can trust anyone anymore and I find it hard to meet any potential new partner.”

Gary Miles, detective chief inspector at the Metropolitan Police – Op Falcon, says: ““The people who perpetrate this type of offence are ruthless, organised, committed and without conscience to the pain, embarrassment and financial loss they cause to their victims.”

As well as online dating scams, there are also instances of people being targeted via personal ads.

But while dating scams in their various different guises may be rife, the Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS) receives very few complaints.

“Many people are affected by ‘lonely hearts scams’, yet a lot are too embarrassed to speak up or seek help,” says an FOS spokesperson. “The sad fact is that if your money can’t be recalled by your bank or money-transfer agency, there’s very little you can do to get it back. The key is to report the matter to the police immediately.”

Here we take a look at some of the ways in which you can get scammed – and the steps you can take to protect yourself.

Types of dating scams

In its simplest form, romance fraud usually involves a conman posing as an interested suitor – often claiming to be travelling, living or working abroad, but insisting he will soon be returning to the UK. Through subtle manipulation, the fraudster then persuades his lovestruck victim to send money for a variety of emotive reasons.

Travel costs

One of the most common explanations is that the “suitor” wants to visit his “lover” in the UK, but needs cash to pay the air fare. In some cases, the fraudster may claim to need cash to replace a plane ticket which has been stolen or because his credit card is at its limit.

Ongoing educational courses and visa applications

On occasions, the story may be even more elaborate, with criminals conning victims into paying for educational courses or qualifications to support a visa application.

With this type of scam, victims can end up repeatedly sending money until they become suspicious. In that time, many thousands of pounds may have changed hands.

Military personnel

Some individuals are being tricked into parting with vast sums of money by fraudsters posing as military personnel based overseas who claim they require funds for flights home or to supplement their income before they are paid.

Western Union, which is often used in such scams as a means of transferring money, says there has been a big increase in US military fraud over the past year. In some cases, con artists may state they are serving in Afghanistan, but request that money be sent to Nigeria or Ghana, where they claim their army captain will collect it on their behalf.

Medical costs

Conmen will also cite medical-related reasons for needing money – such as a sudden need for surgery, or a family member urgently requiring hospital treatment.

Financial hardship

Scammers may claim financial hardship due to an unfortunate run of bad luck, such as a failed business or a mugging in the street.

Blackmail

Some fraudulent suitors will befriend and flirt with their victim in conversation on an online dating chatroom, and then suggest the conversation should move to a social media site. At this point, the fraudster will invite the victim to an internet video chat and encourage them to perform a sexual act.

The victim is then contacted and informed that the act has been recorded and will be posted on a social media site unless money is transferred. “Consumers must be aware that anything they do on the internet can be recorded and used for malevolent purposes,” warns Peter Barnes, director of global investigations at Western Union. “People should never agree to a video call with someone they don’t know.”

 

Other telltale signs your online date may be a fraudster

  • They want to communicate with you through instant messaging and texts, rather than through the dating website or chatroom where you met. That way they can isolate you away from the security of the dating site.
  • They ask lots of questions about you, but don’t tell you much about themselves – such as where they live and work.
  • They shower you with compliments, or quickly start calling you by a pet name.
  • They use photos where they look like an actor or supermodel.
  • Other red flags include military uniform, claiming to be a widower, professing to be a devout Christian, poor spelling and grammar, and inconsistencies in their stories. Also be wary of anyone who tries to move things along too quickly – or who expresses undying love after a few weeks, despite never having met you.

 

How to protect yourself from online dating scams

While most people using dating sites are sincere and honest, it is important that you stay vigilant.

“When using any dating site, you need to exercise caution and take the time to get to know people,” says Neate. “If someone asks to borrow money from you having never met you, you should refuse to do so, no matter what sob story they give.”

The same applies to giving out any credit card or account details online. “This is the case even if you feel you have grown close to someone via email and phone,” adds Neate. “This person is still largely a stranger to you.”

If you’re in two minds about what to do, consult a trusted friend or relative, as they can view the situation objectively and provide sound advice.

“If you’re unsure about any member of a dating site, you could also contact the site’s customer service team,” says a spokesperson for dating site Toyboy Warehouse, which has an in-house moderation team dedicated to stopping scammers before they have a chance to act. “Staff will be well equipped to investigate whether or not the profile is real.”

If you do feel ready to meet someone in person having chatted to them online, you need to remain on high alert and should arrange to meet for the first few times in a safe place with plenty of people around. You should also tell family and friends where you are going.

If you think you are being targeted – or have been a victim of dating fraud – you should report it to Action Fraud, and also to the website or chatroom operator. You can contact Action Fraud at Actionfraud.police.uk or by calling 0300 123 2040. Also visit GetSafeOnline.org.

More top tips to ensure you’re safe when dating online

  • Trust your instincts: if something feels wrong, it probably is.
  • Check if the dating site manually approves members and whether it will enforce its policies against inappropriate use.
  • Choose a dating site that will protect your anonymity until you choose to reveal personal information, or set up a separate email account that does not include your real name.
  • Pick a user name that does not include any personal information. For example, “jane_liverpool” would be a bad choice.
  • Do not post personal information on a dating site, and wait until you feel comfortable with an individual before giving them your mobile number, address, or place of work.
  • Check the contents of every photo sent to you to see if the backgrounds match up to what the person you have been in touch with has been telling you.
  • If you are in doubt about someone, try chatting to them on the phone. That way, you can see if the accent and phone code correspond to the country the person claims to be calling from.
  • Be extremely wary about doing things in front of your webcam that could be used against you – such as removing clothes. This applies even if you think you know the other party.

 

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