We’re all looking for love and companionship, and we’re also all aware that it comes at a cost. But there’s a difference between treating your partner to a nice dinner or flowers on your anniversary and running foul of online romance scams, where one person tricks another into giving them large amounts of money for a fake relationship. The value of the ‘industry’ of online romance scams more than doubled between 2018 and 2020, and experts are suggesting that the pandemic is to blame: lockdowns have led to fewer face-to-face meetings; downturned economies have meant job losses and people turning to unsavoury alternatives to their standard 9-5 jobs and we’re all feeling a little more lonely and vulnerable, leaving people more exposed to scams.
So, what can you do to avoid these scams?
Firstly, understand that they can happen to anyone. There’s a cliche that suggests that younger, more tech-savvy people can avoid being targeted, but research actually suggests that these scams are becoming more common in all age groups, but older people are usually scammed out of larger amounts of money.
Because everyone is a potential target, you know that someone might try this with you. This means you’ll be more alert and the scammers are less likely to be successful. There are also issues with people being ashamed of the fact that they’ve been scammed and trying to hide it or lie about it. There are things you can do to try and stop scammers, but often the most useful thing you can do is report anyone who’s done this/tried to do this. You have nothing to feel embarrassed about: these scams are designed to trick you, and the people perpetrating them often have a lot of experience with manipulation.
Common scams will often start with someone ‘adding’, ‘following’ or ‘friending’ you on a social media site. Dating apps can also be used. The scammer will then talk to you for a few days, but make excuses for why they can’t facetime or video call you, and might claim to be out of the country. There’ll be lots of reasons that you can’t meet them in-person, and this is usually a big warning sign. Investigations from America’s FTC show scammers claiming to be working on oil rigs, or travelling internationally with the military or working as a doctor.
Fortunately, there’s an easy way to find out if someone you’re dating online is looking to scam you: they’ll ask for money. Scammers will usually wait until you’re emotionally invested before saying anything, so you’re more likely to help out. They’ll also usually give a (fake) reason for needing your money: they’re struggling to pay their rent, their medical bills are adding up and they can’t afford necessary surgeries or their car has broken down, for example. They’re almost certainly lying to you.
Of course, all of these things do happen from time to time, and we’ve all wished for a fairy godmother to clear out our overdrafts – which is why these scams are so successful. The scammer makes themselves seem relatable, and claims to be in a situation where you could genuinely help them. Romance scams prey on some of our best instincts and desires to help our loved ones. If you’re really concerned about the person you’ve been virtually dating and think they’re truly in trouble, you still shouldn’t send them money, but instead try to help them by looking up debt relief organisations or other financial aid they may be entitled to.
If an online dating scammer has managed to take your money and won’t return it to you, you should report this as a crime. What is legally permissible will vary depending on where in the world you live, so it’s worth checking local laws to see what form of recourse are available to you. You should also report the user to the website that you met on, to help prevent them from scamming other people. Websites -especially dating apps – are usually pretty strict on these things, and partially rely on users reporting scams to help keep everyone safe. If you transferred money from your bank account, speak with your bank as they may be able to reverse this and get your money back. The use of online romance scams predates the pandemic, and doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. It’s easy to see how it’s become so popular, as people feel more lonely and vulnerable. But knowing what to be aware of and looking out for friends and family members who are trying online dating can be really helpful, so try to discuss this more. It’ll help destigmatize being a victim and prevent people from becoming trapped in a ‘relationship’ that’s actually a betrayal. Look out for common signs, don’t give out your financial information and report scammers to help keep everyone safe.