Online Dating Frauds: Beware Of Fake Dates

What you need to know about romance scams, how to spot one, and how to protect yourself.
Since the dawn of the Internet Age, scheming conmen have been making use of the world wide web to scam victims of their money. The most unscrupulous fraud of all is perhaps the dating scam. And the crime is more rampant than previously thought, says a recent study.

According to the University of Leicester research, one in every 50 online adults know someone personally who was scammed, and in Britain alone, over 200,000 people may have fallen victim to such online dating frauds. "Our data confirms law enforcement suspicions that this is an under-reported crime," says the study's author, Professor Monica Whitty.

"The trauma caused by this scam is worse than any other, because of the 'double hit' experienced by the victims -- loss of monies and a 'romantic relationship'," adds Whitty. "It may well be that the shame and upset experienced by the victims deters them from reporting the crime."

Action Fraud, the reporting and advice centre run by the National Fraud Authority, identified 592 victims of the scams between 2010-11. Of these, 203 lost sums of more than 5,000. And investigations by SOCA, the national police unit of Serious Organised Crime Agency, have seen financial losses experienced by victims of online romance scams of between 50 and 240,000.

It's not just the 'lonely hearts' of dating websites who are at risk of being exploited. With the ubiquity of Facebook and Twitter, social networking sites are becoming a magnet for these fraudsters on the prowl for their next victim. Here's what you need to know about these dating scams and how to spot one.

The modus operandi

In these so-called online romance scams, fraudsters set up fake identities at online dating sites and social networking sites, using stolen photographs of attractive individuals (often of models or army officers). They make contact with potential victims and go on to develop an intimate online relationship. Then at some point during the relationship they pretend to be in urgent need of money and ask for help. Many victims have been duped out of their savings before their suspicions are aroused.

These romance swindlers are members of organized crime syndicates, and they're professional criminals who know exactly how to work their scam: "The perpetrators spend long periods of time grooming their victims, working out their vulnerabilities and when the time is right to ask for money," warns Colin Woodcock, SOCA's senior manager for fraud prevention.

After making initial contact with the victim through online dating sites and social networking sites, these scammers will try to move the 'relationship' away from monitored online space to private emails and messengers to carry out the fraud.

In some cases, victims are also unwittingly involved in money laundering when scammers ask them to accept money into their bank accounts.

So how do you protect yourself from being exploited? "It is crucial that nobody sends money to someone they meet online, and haven't got to know well and in person," says Woodcock. It's also important to recognize the red flags to avoid becoming the next victim:

Watch out for these red flags

Here are some tell-tale signs to look out for if you suspect your online date is a con artist:

Be wary of these excuses for asking money. The most common 'reasons' dating scammers give for needing money include: (1) They don't have enough money to travel to meet you, (2) they have financial problems, (3) they have some illness or accident, (4) they have been robbed, and (5) they need money for a visa, according to H. Thomas Milhorn, author of Cybercrime: How To Avoid Becoming A Victim. Be very suspicious and never send money to anyone you met online, no matter how valid the reason seems.

Money transfer agents are mentioned when requests for money are made. It is harder to trace money sent this way rather than via bank accounts.

He's not your type. Be skeptical if a person who is not your usual dating type is lavishing a lot of attention on you. For example, if you're over 40 years of age and your suitor is in his early 20s.

He claims to be working abroad. By pretending to be working in the army or oil industry in, for example, Iraq, the scammer has a convenient excuse for being unable to meet in person or talk on the phone.

He gives you shady addresses and phone numbers. If he gives you a post office address and a telephone number which he never answers, it's a big red flag.

He sends you generic-looking emails. If the date is giving you flat or vague responses in your email correspondences, it's probably because he is sending the same email to hundreds of people.

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