Online Dating Cons and Scams
How to spot con artists
Online dating has some risks!
His picture looks like he's a nice guy, and he's so cute. She's really young and sexy, and she said she wanted to meet you.
How could he be a gigolo?
How could she be so deceptive?
While many couples meet, date and even marry through online sites, not all online encounters lead to wedded bliss, and some can lead to financial or emotional disaster.
Sadly, these con artists don't wear signs telling you to beware and run the other direction. They are quite good at appearing honest and innocent, and extremely skilled in conning people out of their money, their virtue and their dignity.
Here are some common tricks used by professional scammers, and ways to avoid getting into their traps.
Online dating sites are prime hunting grounds for predators
How to spot predators
The written profiles of online scam artists on dating sites have gotten much trickier to spot in the past several years. The poor writing and bad spelling so common a few years ago is less often as evident; profiles can be expertly written these days. The best way to spot con artists through their profiles is to scrutinize the content. Here are some things to watch for:
Men targeting women: It's not unusual for these men to claim to be widowed, and frequently they will claim to have one young child (a son about eight years old seems to be common, for some reason, but it can be any age). They can also claim they're caring for an elderly parent.
Often, either in the profile or in one of the first messages they'll send, they'll mention they are 'working' in a foreign country. Be advised, the 'son' or elderly parent doesn't exist, and neither does Mr. Handsome Man. The con artist mentions the fake son or other relative to lay the groundwork for conning you out of money. More on that in a bit.
The rest of the profile can be written quite excellently - the reason is, they have cut and pasted paragraphs from real profiles and these are used to build the 'fake' profiles. Some less polished con artists are still new at the game, and you may still see profiles in broken English and poorly written (not just bad spelling by a real person), which can be a very strong indicator of a problem.
Does the profile specifically say they are an American Citizen? This very likely means it's a con artist. The reason is, real American Citizens don't go around identifying themselves that way. That is an abnormal statement, and therefore, a red flag.
Sometimes con artists will mess up by listing hobbies (if the online dating site has places to list them) that aren't normal for men, such as knitting, crafts, etc. In recent years, the con artists have figured out this can tip people off, so it happens less often now.
Women targeting men: Female con artists who target men can appear very enticing if they claim to be from another country - the more exotic, the better.
Unlike scammers who target women, these con artists will rarely claim to have children; it is not as attractive to male victims as it might be with female victims to connect with someone who has children. However, they will often be living with an elderly parent or other fragile relative. Again, this sets up the scenario for needing money.
Often, the 'young woman' will claim to be finishing her education, or to have a small business or otherwise sound industrious and somewhat educated.
As with the con artists targeting women, these scammers can frequently have well-written profiles rather than the broken language of a few years ago. But since they may already claim to live in another country, poor language isn't always a problem.
Many Internet scammers use fake profile photos and descriptions
If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
Online scam artists capitalize on tugging at your heart and appearing normal in every way. A few years ago, they used to be easy to spot, because there usually wasn't a photo and the profile was often poorly written, in broken English. In recent years, this is no longer the case, which means potential victims are even more vulnerable than before.
The photo looks amazing: Many con artists who troll dating sites now use photos that are almost too good to be true, or look slightly 'off' for some reason.
Men targeting women: Con artists targeting women will often post model-perfect photos on the profile page. The guy looks like he could be in magazine ads; handsome, viral, posed just right - like a professional head shot for a portfolio, which it probably is, and the person in the photo likely doesn't know he's being used to con women. Naturally, there are indeed some handsome men out there looking for dates, but if you get a flirtatious message from a guy whose profile photo is beyond cute, don't rush in until you assess things a bit.
Another type of photo to beware of is one that just plain doesn't look 'right' for your culture. If you live in the United States and you get a message from some guy who just doesn't dress like guys do here (I saw one of a middle-aged man in white pedal pushers and a red-striped T-shirt, on a sailboat), check him out further before moving on.
Women targeting men: Often, the photos will be of incredibly sexy, young and beautiful. She thinks you're the man of her dreams, even if you're in your 50s, overweight and no longer Mr. Hunk material. The photos can be overly provocative (the con artist wants to get your attention), or sometimes look less suggestive, but very exotic.
Men who get online messages from much younger women should assess whether the goal is financial and whether conning could be the motive. Certainly, there are successful relationships with age differences in the couple, but the anonymity an online venue provides makes potential victims even less able to evaluate the situation than in person. And we all know that many people end up being conned in person, too.
Beware of invitations to communicate directly very early in the relationship
What about you?
Do you think you can recognize an online con artist if you meet one?
Common ways dating scam artists behave
Since you probably are not the one who initiated contact (by clicking on the profile and sending a message), your first contact with them will likely be when the con artist send you a message wanting to meet you. Here are a few things to watch for:
They claim an instant attraction: If you get a message saying someone more or less fell for you the minute they read your profile, beware. They usually claim they read your great (sweet, caring, whatever) profile and that they saw how beautiful or cute you are look and they want to meet you, because you might be the one for them. Potential victims have been known to get messages saying they're beautifuor handsome when they haven't even posted a photo, and comments about being sweet and terrific when the text in their profile is practically empty.
Immediately asking you to instant message or email: This is a huge, huge red flag. If you get a message from someone you've never connected with before and they include their email and IM address, run fast. Anyone upstanding on a dating site will not push you into offline communication in their first message. Online scam artists almost always push for this right off the bat. The reasons are multiple:
- Better control over the conversation, and over you; they can instantly adapt to your responses and needs
- They work in shifts - this allows someone in their little business to 'talk' with you, 24/7
- They know they will get kicked off the site soon; this gives them a short window of time to lure a victim into the direct communication crucial for their scams
- Instant messages allow them to adapt their dialogue in ways that better entice the victim
The entire con job depends on being able to communicate with you directly, without going through the website. If you trade emails with them but you say you don't do Instant Messaging, they may even go as far as creating an account for you and send you the username and password.
Instant messaging works better than emailing for these tricksters because they can create an air of immediacy and urgency, and they can lure you back to the conversation quickly. Emails are a first step if you don't go for the request to IM, but those are more difficult scams for the con artists to manage, because they know you may read them right away, or hours or days later.
Phone contact: The con artist may or may not ask you to talk by phone. Some are quite good at pulling off the con job with no contact other than IM or email. This is especially important if they have a distinct accent that would tip you off that they aren't who they've represented themselves to be.
Laying the groundwork for the con: This will likely be a family emergency of some sort, such as the 'son' or 'elderly parent' needing surgery. It can also be an agreement to meet you in person, at your expense. These people have no conscience - this is their industry; they've honed their skills and they're good at it. Often, the con artist is very skilled at getting you to offer whatever they want; they don't even need to ask for it, you volunteer it.
Family crisis scams: At some point, often fairly early, they will begin setting the stage for an emergency that only you (and your money) can solve. They generally don't ask for money directly (although they can). Instead, they lay out a scenario that appeals to your sympathy. The son or elderly parent suddenly gets sick, and they send you messages with regular updates, clearly showing their anxiety. But the illness or the surgery they need isn't covered by insurance. Or the only place that can perform the surgery is in another city, and they don't have airfare to get there.
Note that these are quite often indirect strategies. They do not openly ask for money - they simply begin the sob story (carefully and slowly) to suck you in and get you to offer the help. You are presented with the opportunity, not the specific request, in many cases. If you fail to offer the help, they may get brazen enough to ask for it. But since they are actively pursuing other victims at the same time they're conning you, why waste time going that far?
Travel cons: Another ploy is to woo and entice you to meet in person, but of course, you need to buy the tickets. They then cash in the tickets and take the money. Some victims have even been conned a second or their time by claims that the tickets were stolen or had to be cashed in for an emergency. The con artist will keep draining the victim as long as possible. The groundwork for travel cons involves you sending them money to buy tickets (or sending the actual tickets) with a plan to meet somewhere else. Obviously, the con won't work if you travel to where they live (for one thing, they probably don't really live there), because there would be no need to send them money for a ticket. There will be some reason they can't meet you on their turf; they will agree to meet you somewhere else, but will not be able to afford the tickets for the trip.
Conning through business investments or purchases: Maybe their family business is in trouble - the elderly parent didn't pay taxes right before they died and your new love will lose the business. Or they've got a great business that will take their entire family out of poverty, if only they have (pick a dollar amount) for licenses, government approval, plumbing in the building or some other expense.
Scamming money for debts or repairs: Con artists can introduce sad stories about debts they need to pay before they can marry someone, or car repairs they need in order to visit you or keep their job. They will claim they can't leave the country until the debt is paid, or that they can't leave their sickly relative without paying for health equipment they need.
An online dating scam can quickly empty your wallet
True stories of dating con artists and scammers
There are numerous real and fictitious examples of con artists at their best. Here are a few real-life and fiction examples that show how scammers do their work:
Faking a Terminal Illness: Jessica Vega has been indicted for fraud and grand larceny and is accused of faking leukemia in order to get others to pay for an expensive wedding and honeymoon. The case hasn't been tried yet, but the type of behavior she is accused of is similar to cons used on Internet dating sites (the fake illness ploy).
Men also pose as women in order to con other men. The young Nigerian in this news story claims he conned at least 33 men out of millions of dollars.
Other instances have been reported as well, too numerous to catalog here. Older persons hoping for a relationship can be targeted by con artists who are much younger, such when A 69-year-old woman from the USA allegedly gave a 24-year-old man $221,000 toward funding an expense for the Olympic Games in London. The man, nearly three times younger than she is, was arrested in an investigation of money laundering.
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels clip: Early on, it's clear Michael Caine's character has his victim begging him to let her give him money
Movies about romantic deception and con artists
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels: This classic movie, staring Steve Martin and Michael Caine, was later made into a successful Broadway musical. Although the movie is a comedy, the techniques used by the two lead characters are typical of the 'conning through persuasion' strategies used by professional con artists. Both characters smoothly lie to their victims and set them up for their cons.
The clip here shows how Michael Caine's character has wooed various women to con them out of money, then, through Steve Martin's character pretending to be an out-of-control sibling, drives them away. This creates a situation where the victim ends the relationship because it cannot be sustained, which means the con artist gets by with it. Please excuse the overdone character Steve Martin plays here; no offense is intended by showing this clip.
Pillow Talk: This classic comedy features a handsome man (Rock Hudson) deceiving an attractive woman (Doris Day) in the name of romance. The movie was so popular that the two stars were paired in a subsequent film, Lover Come Back, with a new spin on the same basic theme. Films of this type suggest to audiences that con artists can redeem themselves and be worthy mates.
HouseSitter: In the name of gender equality, we need to mention at least one female con-artist in the film industry. Goldie Hawn portrays a deceiving and manipulating con-artist throughout the entire movie. Typical of comedies, though. the audience loves her, as does the lead actor, Steve Martin. And, of course, they live happily (if dishonestly) ever after.
Watch for indications they want you to sell something of value in order to provide them with money
What to do if you meet a con artist
If you're on a dating site and you meet someone you believe might be a con artist, the following steps will help protect you as well as others on the site:
- Report the user and his or her profile to the site administrators. Part of their job is to protect you and other potential victims. Often, site administrators have ways to see if the individual is indeed a scammer and they will delete the person's profile.
- Do NOT give this individual your email address, IM information or any other details that can personally identify you, such as your real name or where you work.
- Block the person from contacting you on the site
- Cease contact immediately, do not engage in messaging with them, and don't look back
If the person has already engaged in what could be criminal activity, gather all data on how to locate and identify them and report it to the proper authorities. Their Instant Message address, email account, phone number, skype address and other channels through which they've contacted you can help the right authorities track them down.
Final words: If you're on a dating site, go slowly. It probably took a lot of thought to join the site and put yourself "out there," so don't rush into anything when you start meeting someone. It can make people giddy with excitement to think there are people all over the world, just waiting to meet them.
Take time to learn about the individual the same way you would in person. Watch for the warning signs as well as the good signs, and don't be afraid to back away if red flags start appearing.
© 2010 by Marcy Goodfleisch, MA. Marcy has researched and taught university-level courses about ethics, sociopathic behaviors and other subjects. This article was originally researched in 2008, written in 2010 and subsequently published on this site.
Questions & Answers
What about people who claim that they're in the military, are they trustworthy?
This one can be tricky - obviously, some legitimate military members are looking for romance. Check the rank on the uniform (you can search online to match it), and ask them what rank they are. Ask them what they do for the military. Search to see if their image matches someone else. If their writing sounds fake, it probably is a scammer. I was once contacted by a guy with four stars (all 4-star generals are listed online), and he claimed to be a surgeon. I played dumb and asked what his rank was, and he said he was the "Surgeon General." Uh, not quite. I found the image of the real person and informed them, and Facebook eventually deleted the guy.
© 2012 Marcy Goodfleisch