Online daters warned to watch for predators

If you’re lonely, “looking” or just trying to find some companionship, you’re probably familiar with online dating sites. Well-funded companies are spending millions on advertising that promises you can find your soulmate, showing dreamy pictures of happy couples. Their lure is the chance to find that “special someone” to share your hopes and dreams, and Americans pay up big. Online dating has become a huge industry worth more than $2 billion.

While there are indeed true success stories out there in the online dating world, on the other side of the glitzy ads is a much-darker reality; online dating has become a feeding ground for predators, looking to separate you from your money. Often, criminals troll social media sites and chat rooms, falsely claiming to be Americans traveling or working abroad. According to the FBI, their most common targets are women over 40 who are divorced, widowed and/or disabled, but every age group and demographic is at risk.

The FBI reports that the typical dating scammer will contact a potential target, expressing interest. Often, their profile and photo match nearly perfectly with what you’re looking for, piquing your interest. Contact can go back and forth for weeks or months, establishing a bond of trust. Eventually, though, he or she asks you to send money, tugging at your heartstrings with a tale of calamity.

But sending money only ensures you will get more requests. They may ask you to cash checks for them, or to forward packages. All the while, you’re becoming further entangled in a web of lies, and in some cases you may become an unwitting accomplice to other illegal activities.

In one scam reported to the FBI, victims met someone on an online dating site and then were asked to move the conversation to a particular social networking site, where the talk often turned intimate. Victims were later sent a link to a website where those conversations were posted, along with photos, their phone numbers and claims that they were “cheaters.” In order to have that information removed, victims were told they could make a $99 payment — but there is no indication the other side of the bargain was upheld.

Americans lose an estimated $81 million per year through this or similar scams. The industry has been struggling to catch up, but it’s not been fast enough for at least one organization.

Recently, AARP has called on the online dating industry to better protect its members and has organized a petition drive to demand changes to the industry. Once completed, the petition will be sent to the top online dating websites: Match.com, eHarmony, Plenty of Fish, Zoosk, OK Cupid, SeniorPeopleMeet and Our Time.

Individual scammers and highly organized groups attempt to steal hearts and wallets from online dating site users every day,” Kelly Cress, interim state director of AARP Mississippi, said in a news release. “The sites don’t yet do enough to protect their members from known scammers. Our petition asks the companies to take commonsense steps to help put a stop to the scammers’ abilities to prey on the unsuspecting.”

The AARP has urged the online dating industry to implement a series of steps advocated by its Fraud Watch Network, including employing algorithms to detect suspicious language patterns used by scammers, searching for fake profiles across multiple dating websites, issuing alerts to any member who has been in contact with someone using a fraudulent profile; and educat­ing members with tips on how to avoid romance scammers.

But while we wait for the industry to enact stronger safeguards, AARP suggests there are things you can do to help avoid the risk of becoming a victim. First, use Google’s “search by image” feature to see if that person’s image shows up in other places using a different name. And if an email from a potential suitor seems suspicious, cut and paste it into Google and see if the words pop up on any romance scam sites. And the FBI suggests watching for these red flags. It may be a scam if your online date:

  • Presses you to leave the dating website you met through and to communicate using personal email or instant messaging.
  • Professes instant feelings of love.
  • Sends you a photograph of himself or herself that looks like something from a glamour magazine.
  • Claims to be from the U.S. and is traveling or working overseas.
  • Makes plans to visit you but is then unable to do so because of a tragic event.
  • Asks for money for a variety of reasons, which may include travel, medical emergencies, hotel bills, hospitals bills for child or other relative, visas or other official documents or losses from a financial setback or crime victimization.

It you believe you’ve been victimized by a dating scam or any other online scam, file a complaint with our Internet Crime Complaint Center (www.ic3.gov). You can sign the AARP’s online petition and get more tips at http://tinyurl.
com/qynebb8.

Originally published in the Clarion-Ledger on 6/11/2015.

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