I have been to four weddings of couples who met and fell in love using online dating sites. It can, and does, work. Unfortunately, like many other facets of online life, dating scams have increased dramatically. Whether are you communicating with someone who claims to be someone they're not, or are faced with a criminal who has intentions of scamming you out of your life savings--or worse, intends to physically harm you--you have to be careful.
My husband and I used the Internet to get to know each other when we first met. Those were the days before online dating, but because we lived 3,000 miles away from each other, we used the Internet to communicate and become closer. When using this medium, you can quickly feel as if you have gotten to know the person you are talking with and feel a very intimate level of trust, like I did with my husband. A recent Canadian news story shows a darker side to this, however. Glenn Whitter is a man who targeted victims on an online dating site with the sole intention of scamming them out of their money. He was able to coerce many women into giving up their entire savings. He was very sophisticated in his deception and specifically targeted his victims based on the information that they chose to self-disclose on social media. Whatever their interests were, Whitter made sure to make them his also. He was able to portray himself as the perfect catch for each of the women he scammed. He even was so bold as to take one of the women to "his condo" in Toronto, though as it turned out, he was not listed in any records as the owner of the condo. Whitter has since disappeared and has an outstanding warrant for his arrest. The Whitter case illustrates the issue: When you are dating online, you have to be aware that the person that you are communicating with might not be who they say they are. In fact, people lying on online dating sites has become so prevalent that a popular documentary film and television show coined a term for it--being "catfished."
The good news is that you can protect yourself by learning how to spot a phony while dating online. I go in-depth on the topic in my book Catching the Catfishers: Disarm the Online Pretenders, Predators and Perpetrators Who Are Out to Ruin Your Life, but for now, let's take a look at seven indications that someone that you are talking with might be catfishing you and use them to help catch the catfisher.
1. If a person won't video chat or carry on a telephonic conversation.
Video chatting with a person that you meet online is a common, normal practice in online dating. In fact, all the couples I know who met online said that their first real conversations were over the phone or by video chat. If a person makes excuses every time that you want to Skype or talk via phone, this is a red flag. They might claim that they don't have time, or that their camera is broken, but keep in mind that every modern day smartphone, laptop and tablet has the ability to video chat. If you ask them repeatedly and keep getting excuses, be concerned. This person is hiding something that they don't want you to know.
2. Do they have a realistic amount of digital puzzle pieces that, when followed, piece together a real person?
Almost everyone in the United States has some sort of Internet presence that when pieced together creates a real identity. It is very rare that someone would have no Internet presence at all. If you do basic research, such as conducting a search using a portal such as Spokeo.com or looking through social media sites, and can't find anything about a person, that is a red flag. Even most social media sites that allow strict privacy settings will at least show you the first page of a person's profile. Most professionals will at least have a LinkedIn page. If you cannot find anything on the Internet about a person, they might not be telling you their real name, which is again a red flag.
3. Check public records.
Do some reconnaissance by using search engines to find public records. You might discover that (as with of Glenn Whitter) other people have complained about a person. Heed these warnings. If a person says they own a house, you will be able to easily determine if that's true, and also where it is and how long they have lived there. You can also find legal documents like bankruptcy filings, divorce records and sometimes marriage licenses. Some cities and states even post traffic tickets online.
4. Do they send real time photos of themselves?
When people are communicating online, they will frequently send each other photos in real time. During a conversation, ask to see a photo of the person right then. If they refuse, or make some excuse, that is a red flag. If they have only sent you one or two photos, it is likely that they took that photo from someone else's social media page or from somewhere else on the Internet. Do an easy Google Image search on a photo and see if it pops up on someone else's social media account or elsewhere online. Recently, Notre Dame football star Manti Te'o was catfished by a 22 year old man named Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, who claimed to be Lennay Kekua, a 23 year old woman. Tuiasosopo even sent a photo of a beautiful girl who was purported to be Kekua. Eventually, a photo search revealed that the photo had been lifted from the social media site of an unwitting 22 year old woman named Diane O'Meara. We don't know the substance of the online communication between Te'o and "Kekua," but most likely she was not able to send real time, on demand photos because they didn't exist.
5. Do they have regular banter with other people on their sites and appear to have "real" friends and work colleagues?
You can get to know who a person's close friends are based on the banter they engage in with others on social media. Friends who typically just occasionally "like" a person's posts but do not have frequent, regular banter with them are most likely just acquaintances. But friends who appear in photos or tag people regularly are probably closer friends. Does the person seem to have real friends who have inside jokes and carry on conversations? Do they tag them? Or do they just have a few "place holder" friends who they don't appear to actually know that well? On LinkedIn, do they have colleagues who have endorsed them or just some connections? If you find that a person's friends don't seem close or real, consider reaching out to their social media friends and asking if they know them.
6. Do they distract you or never answer your questions when you ask detailed specific questions?
When you ask specific questions, do they clam up? Do you find that they never really answer your questions or distract you from your original question so that you change the subject and stop probing? Do you feel as if they know everything about you but you know nothing about them? These are red flags. Getting to know someone is give-and-take. You give a little and they give a little. If you feel as if you are the only one sharing information and they are almost being sneaky about giving away details, consider this a red flag.
7. Do their stories match up?
If someone is pretending to be someone they're not, they will have a difficult time keeping their fake persona different from their real life. It is impossible to be someone else 100 percent of the time and they will likely let their guard down on occasion. Sometimes things will accidentally slip out and each one of those slips is a red flag. For example, if the person you are talking to claims to have no siblings but accidentally makes a comment about their sister, take notice. If they claim to live in Sarasota, Florida during the winter but make an offhand comment about being sore from shoveling snow, take notice. That is the real person accidentally slipping out.
Of course, not everyone is out to scam you. There are plenty of legitimate daters on these sites. We all know perfectly happy people who have met online. The intention is not to question everyone and everything to the point where you become so guarded or paranoid that you never put yourself out there, but to remember the seven tips above and be cautious. Be the fish that got away.