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Since the Netflix documentaries “Bad Vegan” and “The Tinder Swindler” captured the attention of streaming audiences, there’s been a lot of talk about online romance scams — and lots of questions about how to avoid being swindled while meeting people online.
The docuseries “Bad Vegan” follows former celebrity restaurateur Sarma Melngailis’ fall from grace after she got involved with Anthony Strangis, a man she met on Twitter and later married. Strangis allegedly told his wife that if she passed a series of tests, which included transferring large sums of money from the restaurant to him, he could make her beloved pit bull live forever — among other outlandish promises.
“The Tinder Swindler” tells the story of the con artist Shimon Hayut, known as Simon Leviev, who allegedly used Tinder to meet the women he would go on to defraud out of millions of dollars. Posing as the son of a wealthy diamond magnate, Hayut wooed his targets with high-end dates before convincing them to loan him money, claiming he was in danger and unable to use his own credit cards for “security reasons.” He has since been banned from Tinder and several other dating apps and sites.
If these documentaries have made you wary about the people you encounter when looking for love online, read on. Below, experts explain what red flags to look out for and what to do if you match with someone who seems suspicious.
1. Their story is full of inconsistencies.
When the information someone shared with you on an app doesn’t match what they’ve told you via text or elsewhere, you have reason to be wary. When a person is lying, they may not remember what they’ve said to you before, making it hard to keep their story straight. Or if they’re desperate to keep you engaged, they’ll just tell you whatever they think you want to hear. Maybe they initially told you they don’t watch football, but now they’re telling you they have season tickets to your favorite team.
“Scammers will do anything to con their way to your heart, including providing false or misleading information and using your emotions as a weapon to manipulate,” dating expert and matchmaker Jasmine Diaz of the Diaz Dating Group told HuffPost. “It’s important to watch and listen for these inconsistencies; otherwise, you might find yourself on the receiving end of heartbreak.”
2. They seem too good to be true.
Be cautious around people who come on too strong. A person who showers you with over-the-top romantic gestures and declarations of their affection very early on in a relationship may be love-bombing you in order to manipulate you.
“This may include expensive trips, lavish gifts, or over-the-top displays of affection in an attempt to take you off your guard,” Diaz said.
“Every relationship will go through a newlywed stage, but if you believe your partner is ‘too good to be true,’ they probably are,” she said.
Once a love-bomber has lured you in with all of the attention, gifts and compliments, they’ll pull the rug out from under you.
“It’s a classic bait-and-switch,” marriage and family therapist Virginia Gilbert previously told HuffPost. “They seem to be doing all the giving until you realize you’re doing all the giving and they have used you for your body, your wallet, your home, your caretaking ability and your empathy.”
3. They refuse to video chat or meet up with you IRL.
Scammers may claim the camera on their phone or laptop is broken or tell you they’re working overseas or traveling to places where their internet or cell connection is shoddy. They get cagey when you suggest a video chat or meeting up in person and they’ll offer any excuse to avoid it because they don’t want to blow their cover.
“Technology has advanced at such a pace that refusing to meet over FaceTime, Zoom, or at your local coffee shop, if you live in the same city, is highly questionable,” Diaz said. “There are not enough internet outages or vehicle breakdowns that can explain away not having a virtual or IRL meetup, so any refusal to keep your communication to the telephone or through messenger should be met with extreme caution.”
4. They have no digital footprint.
Another red flag? The person doesn’t have much of, if any, online presence: no social media accounts (or ones started very recently), no LinkedIn profile, no mention of them in a local newspaper or on their company’s website. Yes, there are people who tend to be more private online, but if you can’t find any trace of them, that could be cause for concern.
“Some occupations may require a level of privacy for legal or ethical reasons. Therapists, for example, set digital boundaries by limiting access to their personal life, but even those professionals have a digital footprint,” Diaz said. “If the person you met on an app cannot be found online, you might be dealing with a scammer.”
There could be rare instances in which you match with someone who is living “off the grid,” Diaz said, “but these people are few and far between and less likely to be on a dating app to begin with.”
“Any refusal to keep your communication to the telephone or through messenger should be met with extreme caution.”
5. They ask a lot of questions related to your finances.
Be aware of what subjects they tend to bring up, especially in the early stages of the relationship, said Maria Sullivan, vice president of Dating.com. Do they seem overly materialistic? Are they more focused on your money situation than getting to know you as a person? That could be a sign they’re on the hunt for someone to scam.
“If you notice a potential partner is asking questions such as what kind of car you drive, or what your finances are like — anything that feels like they’re digging to find out whether you have money to burn — you might be dealing with a scammer,” Sullivan said.
6. They can be evasive about their own life.
That might mean refusing to answer your questions, not incorporating you into their life or limiting the amount of time they spend with you, Diaz said.
“Not all generally evasive people are scammers, but it’s an important thing to consider if the person you’re dating or in a relationship with is never around, has never introduced you to their friends, or avoids discussing their occupation,” she added. “If you know very little about their life, it’s time to question why.”
7. They ask you for money.
To some, this might seem like an obvious red flag. But when you feel like you’ve developed an emotional connection with someone, you’re more susceptible to giving in to these requests. We have a human tendency to want to help people, especially ones we care about. Scammers will prey on that kindness.
“While helping someone might seem like the right thing to do, that is exactly what the dating scammer wants,” Sullivan said. “If you find someone you’ve just met online asking for financial assistance, take it as a huge red flag that you’ve encountered a scammer.”
“While helping someone might seem like the right thing to do, that is exactly what the dating scammer wants.”
Often, fraudsters will concoct a story about an emergency situation they’ve found themselves in that requires you to send them money as quickly as possible.
Examples include: “‘My car broke down on the way to work, but I don’t get paid until next week,‘” Diaz said. “Or ‘I lost my credit card, and now I’m stuck in fill-in-the-blank-city,’ or ‘People are after me.’”
“Scammers are good at making you believe that the decision to give them money was your idea and will use your empathy as a tool to get what they want,” she added.
What To Do If You Suspect You’re Dealing With A Scammer
Ignore the urge to call them out for being a fraud — a confrontation like this could lead to harassment. Instead, cut off communication immediately and report them to the dating app or site you met them on.
“Notify the platform of your suspicions and let them do the investigating,” Diaz said. (You can also report it to the Federal Trade Commission via their website.)
Sullivan also suggested removing them as friend or blocking them on any social media sites so they’re unable to reach you.
“The more of your personal information a scammer has access to, the better it is for them,” she said.
How To Protect Yourself Moving Forward
Be cautious about the amount of personal information you share on your dating profiles (and online in general). Keep it to the basics, Diaz said: your first name, age and what you’re looking for in a partner or relationship.
“Scammers can take sensitive information like birthdates, addresses, employer info, and even email addresses to con an unsuspecting single,” she said. “Keep your digital street smarts sharp when navigating online.”
When you connect with a potential romantic interest, do your homework first. Google their name, do a reverse image search of their profile photos, check out their social media accounts and any professional pages, if they have them. See if the details match up to what they’ve been telling you.
Experts also recommend talking to a trusted friend or family member about your new love interest. If they have concerns, that could be an indication something’s off.
At the end of the day, it’s important to be aware of potential red flags without letting fears of being scammed stop you from looking for love altogether.
“Be vigilant about your online dating safety, but also don’t be afraid to take calculated risks,” Diaz said. “In the end, we’re all strangers trying to find each other, and most online daters are good people.”