While online dating scams may be a relatively new concept, tales of heartbreak are as old as time. Now, there’s a multi-billion dollar industry dedicated to romantic films, music, and, dating apps.
By the end of 2023, dating apps reached over 400 million users, generating over $8 billion in revenue through dating, casual dating, and matchmaking services.
Unfortunately, with so many people actively searching for love, it’s a prime opportunity for a romance scammer to play on the heartstrings of people looking for love, which can lead to devastating consequences.
As dating apps become more popular, the possibility of becoming a target for romance scammers’ favorite lies increases dramatically. We will explore the most popular Tinder scams, catfish scams, and other things to watch out for when looking for love online.
By increasing your awareness and avoiding scam dating techniques scammers use, you can protect your finances, online accounts, and yourself so you can live happily ever after.
A brief history of online dating scams
Surprisingly, dating scams can be traced back to the 16th century from the story of the Spanish Prisoner scams. Back in the old days, a 16th-century romance scammer would pose as a member of society and choose a wealthy person to initiate a conversation.
Once the scammer has their target, they claim they correspond with a wealthy and important member of the Spanish nobility, who is currently being held captive. To secure their release, the scammer would request money from their target.
This high member of Spanish society coincidentally has a beautiful, unmarried daughter who coincidentally is the perfect match for the person responsible for the Father’s release from jail.
How online dating scams work
Since then, online dating scams, or other common online scams in general, may have become more advanced, but the overall concept remains the same: for a small financial contribution, a huge award awaits you. In the case of romance scams, this can be a future with your ideal partner in a faraway land.
Once the conversation starts, things will generally move quickly, and the romance scammer will often quickly profess their love and ask for money. Normally, they will say they need the money to come visit them, or because they have a sick family member who needs help.
What types of online dating scams are there?
As is the case with cyberattacks, romance scams come in many shapes and forms but share a similar end goal: using social engineering and manipulation to steal money from you, or expose your personal details for their benefit.
Find the most common examples of popular online dating scams with cases from real people below.
1. Catfish scams
Catfish scams were made famous after the 2010 film “Catfish,” which followed the story of New York photographer, Nev Shulman. After Nev connects with a young girl on Facebook who was a fan of his work, he becomes more involved with the family. He develops a romantic relationship with the young girl’s sister, Megan, who lives in Michigan.
The film then follows Nev on his journey to meet Megan in Michigan. Without revealing spoilers, this film gave birth to the term catfishing, describing a catfish scammer as someone who uses a false identity to trick someone online under the guise of a romantic relationship.
The film grew in popularity and is now a long-running TV show that draws attention to the dangers of how far a catfish scammer will go to deceive people.
2. Fake dating sites
Scammers are well-versed in mimicking popular websites to collect and steal information. A scam dating website is a fake page created by a romance scammer or a group of hackers to mimic popular dating websites.
Regardless of whether you have an account with legitimate dating sites, many people receive emails with fake websites. By sending out generic emails, the scammer hopes that one person out of thousands clicks the link to 'find their perfect partner.' Instead, the website is filled with fake profiles or bots contacting people to trick them into providing sensitive details or sending money.
Another risk of these websites is hidden charges or subscription fees, meaning you are paying for something you didn’t agree to. Trying to cancel these charges can be extremely challenging or impossible on the fake website, meaning you have to go through extra measures to cancel the account.
To protect yourself from signing up to fake websites, look out for these red flags:
Poor website design: Fake websites are often poorly designed with low standards in their image and content. If you’re unsure, look for
https://in the URL to see if the website is secure.
- Fake profiles: Some profiles may contain generic or stock photos and lack personal details. Doing a reverse image search can help you spot fake profiles.
- Automated messages: If you immediately sign up and receive overly enthusiastic messages, this could be an automated bot or romance scammer.
3. Photo scams
One of the popular Tinder scams and a problem on other dating apps is photo-sharing scams. This can happen once the romance scammer contacts you via a dating app, often via a fake profile, to build trust and a connection via direct messages.
After building trust, the scammer will ask or even pressure their target into exchanging intimate photos. Once they do, they quickly change tactics and threaten to release the photos online unless they pay a ransom or exchange personal or account information.
The best way to avoid these extortion tactics is to block the profile and report it to the app or website, and always be skeptical if the conversation is moving too quickly.
4. Dating profiles working overseas
Another of romance scammers’ favorite lies to make their profiles seem more legitimate is to pose as a military, doctor, or another position requiring them to work overseas. A scammer will choose these types of jobs because many view them as trustworthy professions.
Posing as someone working abroad gives the perfect cover for a scammer not to meet up with you in real life, and they can’t have a video call because of a poor connection.
Once this scam begins, working overseas will quickly become the scammer’s excuse to ask you for money, stating that they have banking issues due to laws or other problems. Other excuses can be family problems or an overseas investment opportunity. Either way, any money you send to them will never be paid back in most cases.
5. Money Laundering Dating Scams
This is a dating scam where a scammer will unknowingly take advantage of you and get you to launder money for them.
Once a relationship or level of “trust” is built, a scammer will build on their emotional and romantic manipulation techniques and use you for their money laundering operations. The romance scammer will start by sending you money via bank transfer or other means.
Once received, you will be asked to perform financial transactions on their behalf, which may include:
The victim is unaware that they have participated in a money laundering scheme, and the criminal has used scam dating or unwanted messages from the platform to find “money mules. " These types of online dating scams can set the victim up for legal action, and can be prosecuted for money laundering.
You can avoid money muling by looking out for these danger signs:
- Unsolicited transactions: sending you money without warning is a danger sign that a scammer has targeted you for money laundering.
- Requests for gift cards or other currencies: be cautious of anyone asking you to send money online, especially via gift cards of foreign currencies.
6. Sugar Daddy or Mummy online scams
This is another of romance scammers’ favorite lies involving a romance scammer posing as an older man or woman, also referred to as a sugar daddy or mummy. The catfish scammer will pose as a wealthy person who will send money to younger people in exchange for romance.
Once trust is built, before they start to send you money or your “allowance,” they will ask you to pay an upfront fee to try and scam you out of your own money, or they will attempt to steal your personal information before they vanish completely.
Real-world examples of online dating scams
Unfortunately, despite the warning signs, people’s emotions can still get the better of them. Many people think with their hearts rather than their heads when it comes to Tinder scams or other catfishing tactics. Here are some examples of people who have fallen for romance scammers’ favorite lies.
1. A woman loses £120.000 to a romance scam
Linda Young, a special education school administrator from the UK, lost more than £120,000 to a romance scammer on a dating website aimed at over-50s. After many emails, texts, and late-night phone calls, the woman fell quickly in love with the scammer.
For six months, Linda would dream about a future that would never happen. This false promise of a future tricked Linda into sending them money. Although she felt something wasn’t right, the scammer would play on her emotions, saying that this investment would be for both of them soon.
Unfortunately, Linda Young never got her stolen money back from the scammer and looks back at the time as 'a moment of temporary insanity.'
2. Woman jailed for targeting a holocaust survivor in romance scam
A woman from Florida stole over $2 million from an 87-year-old holocaust survivor to live a life of luxury.
Over four and a half years, Peaches Stergo first asked for money from her victim for a legal settlement that never existed. Later, she would demand that her victim send funds to her bank account, claiming that if he didn’t, then her account would be frozen, and she could never pay him back.
Stergo’s victim would go on to send her over 62 cheques, resulting in the elderly man losing his apartment and belongings.
Eventually, Stergo was caught by police, sentenced to 51 months in prison, and ordered to pay $2.83 million in retribution for her crimes.
3. Woman sends $15K to romance scammer posing as...Johnny Depp
Many romance scammers are well-versed in popular tactics to trick people by using advanced technology techniques to create fake personas. In this example, one popular online dating scam used the likeness of Johnny Depp.
A 68-year-old woman, this time from Omaha, Nebraska, sent $15,000 to a catfish scammer claiming to be Johnny Depp.
The catfish scammer posing as Depp first messaged her online messaged the woman online asking for a $10,000 contribution for a wedding planner. Once they canceled the repayment, they managed to further scam the woman out of an extra $5,000.
In fact, things got so out of hand with people using Depp’s image in online dating scams that his team released a statement reminding people of his official accounts and that he never communicates with fans outside of these.
How to outsmart a romance scammer
If you’re wondering how to outsmart a romance scammer, the first step is recognizing the signs of catfish scams. More often than not, romance scammers’ favorite lies are based on creating a sense of urgency and declaring their love for you right from the get-go.
The main warning signs catfish scammer you can look for in their profile include:
- They live far away.
- Their profile seems too good to be true.
- The relationship moves very quickly from the beginning.
- They break promises to see or call you.
- They ask for money.
- They ask for specific payment methods.
Now that we have an awareness of romance scammers and their preferred dating scams, you can practice these safety guidelines and share them with anyone you know on the online dating scene to keep your friends and family safe by offering tips on how to outsmart a romance scammer.
1. Be skeptical
Any relationship or communication you have with somebody online, whether in a romantic setting or not, requires due diligence that the person is who they say they are and they have good intentions.
Scammers usually target people close to the holidays, i.e., Valentine's Day, Christmas, etc, as this is when people feel more generous or emotionally vulnerable to catfish scams because they feel alone.
If someone contacts you and starts professing love for you or makes indecent requests or proposals, end the conversation and report the user for spam.
2. Verify identity
If you are talking with someone via messages, the best way to verify their identity quickly to avoid Tinder scams or a fake profile is to arrange a video call. Anyone engaging in catfish scams will make any excuse not to show their face, and they can get quite creative with their lies.
If the person you’re talking with will not meet with you for a video call, they’re likely a scammer, so it is best to stop communication and never arrange to meet them if they live in your area.
3. Consult with friends and family
Friends or family will have your best interests at heart and can offer you a neutral perspective on whether you are being catfished or targeted for other romance scams. As over 20,000 people in the US per year are targeted for catfish scams, chances are they have experience and can offer you first-hand advice on staying safe online.
4. Take control of the situation
Most importantly, if you follow all of the steps and are sure the person you are meeting is real, you must still protect yourself when arranging to meet somebody you met online and follow these steps after you are sure you have verified their identity:
Inform friends and family: share as many details as possible about where you’ll be, and establish a check-in time.
- Choose a public meeting place: the more people, the better. Avoid private or secluded places.
- Arrange your transport: this gives you independence and the freedom to leave when necessary.
- Have an exit plan: Plan a safe way to leave the situation, keep your phone nearby, and keep it fully charged.
- Set boundaries: be clear about what you are and are unwilling to do when arranging a meeting.
Remember, a romance scammer will try any excuse to manipulate you into doing what they want. Still, if you know how to outsmart a romance scammer by becoming aware of what they do to achieve their goals, you can stay safe online and meet people who can positively impact your life.
Finding love in a hopeless place
Sharing our feelings with someone is an emotional journey for everyone, and these emotions can sometimes cloud our judgment, no matter how knowledgeable we are about the dangers of the internet.
Cybercriminals are experts in using emotional manipulation to get what they want. If you feel as though you are the next target for a catfish scammer, remember the main warning signs of online dating scams:
- Refusing to video call or verify their identity
- Professing love or moving the relationship too quickly
- Asking or playing on your emotions to scam you out of your money
If in doubt, block the profile and report the account. Stay safe when communicating with anyone online, and be suspicious of every stranger you talk to who asks you for something; it likely has higher costs and other strings attached.