It feels like we all know someone who met their significant other through an online dating site. Many of us have even been to a wedding or two of a couple who fell in love online. The stigma of online dating has certainly subsided since it began decades ago, and according to Pew Research Center, 15 percent of adults use online dating sites or mobile dating apps.
But no matter how normal it's become, there remains a dark side of dating online-and it isn't just the risk of being matched with someone who is a bore at dinner. There's a more serious risk of being found--and romanced--by a criminal or con artist.
At the National Consumers League, we are in the business of monitoring Americans' fraud experiences and tracking patterns and trends. Since online dating websites first gained popularity, we have found that "sweetheart swindles" and other scams of the heart have maintained a strong presence in our complaint database.
In 2016, "friendship and sweetheart swindles" were the 9th-most reported type of fraud to the National Consumers League's Fraud.org campaign. This is no surprise, since romantic feelings and emotions are involved. In this category of scams, the set-ups often vary, but the important details are consistent: a con artist nurtures an online relationship, builds trust, and then convinces their victim to send money to them. The scams can be financially ruinous for the victims. In 2016, they were the single most expensive type of scam for victims, with a median loss of $2,000.
With so many of us turning to the Internet to find dates, friends, community activities, and more, it's no wonder that scammers have cultivated a new way of taking money from their victims. Think you've found a new friend online but suspect something's fishy? You're certainly not alone. In honor of both Valentine's Day and anti-celebrations by members of the broken hearts club, read on for some example of romance scams reported to Fraud.org (note: names have been changed to protect consumers' privacy):
"Jennifer," a 32-year-old woman from Wisconsin, met a man calling himself "Nick" on the dating website OKCupid. Nick said he was originally from Australia but living in Nebraska.
Shortly into their online relationship, Nick had to go to Africa for a routine business trip. While he was there, "tragedy" struck. He told "Jennifer" that he was robbed, left with no cash, and desperately needed money to buy a plane ticket to return to the United States.
Having developed romantic feelings for Nick, Jennifer dutifully obliged and sent thousands of dollars to help him. Following this, Nick experienced a string of more unfortunate (and fake) events--getting arrested, needing a diplomatic passport, his mother falling gravely ill, having a heart attack, and getting arrested again. Throughout all of this, a devoted (and entirely duped) Jennifer agreed to his requests for cash through credit card advances, iTunes gift cards, and even by sending iPhones. In all, Jennifer is now in credit card debt for $31,000, and lost a total of $35,000, including the cash she wired to her sweetheart.
After being single for many years, "Dan" befriended a woman on a dating Web site. She said she was an artist in Lagos, Nigeria. The two developed a spiritual connection and grew romantically involved. The woman told Dan that she longed to come to California to be with him. That's when she asked him for money, and he happily wired her $2,500. Dan was soon contacted by a man claiming to be the woman's doctor, who said Dan's true love had been in a terrible accident and was in a coma.
Dan never heard from her again.
"Molly" met a man on an online dating site and they conversed regularly for about a month before the man told Molly that his daughter needed heart surgery. Over the course of several months, Molly sent the man a total of $1,000. Only later did she realize that the man was after her money and nothing more, and that the daughter who needed heart surgery probably didn't even exist.
"Pam" told us about a man she'd met online who asked her for $150 because he'd been hit by a car and needed treatment. He then sent her documents that he claimed were copies of medical bills and receipts, and asked her to send him another $760 to help him come to the United States so that they could be together.
Pam was in love and wanted to help her new beau. She sent the money. He never showed up, but Pam reported that the man still harasses her for more money from time to time.
Even seasoned users of online dating sites can fall for one of these scams. To reduce your risk of becoming a victim, take a look at this refresher on the red flags of romance scams.