Online dating sites and apps have made it easier than ever to put yourself out there in the search for love. The problem? They've also made it convenient for so-called sweetheart scammers to prey on unsuspecting victims for their money or identity credentials so they can swindle them down the road.
In fact, the FBI reports that in 2016—the most recent year for which data is available—romance scams cost American consumers more than $230 million. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. The actual number may be even higher, because often people are too embarrassed to report such incidents.
Eva Velasquez, president and CEO of the Identity Theft Resource Center, says that without face-to-face interaction, it can be hard to build trust.
"When you feel like you've made that special connection, it can throw you for a loop when you find out it's all fake," Velasquez says. "Remember that romance scams are a confidence game, so these folks are going to appear to have all the desirable traits. They are going to tailor their online personas to meet your needs."
Velasquez adds that scammers aren't just after your money. They might also be after your identity credentials or other personally identifying information.
"They can use your money once, but they can use your identity for the rest of your life," she says.
It's enough to put anyone off online dating forever, but it doesn't have to. Here are steps you can follow to protect yourself from unscrupulous fraudsters in your search for love.
1. Be Skeptical
It can be easy to assume everyone is out there for the same reason you are—to find a love connection. But it's smart to go into the process with a healthy dose of skepticism. For example, when a potential prospect is overly insistent on wanting to do things for you or take care of you, that should raise an eyebrow. If it sounds too good to be true, proceed with caution.
"If someone is too close too soon, immediately professing true love, if they are available all the time and responding immediately to every message, that should be a big red flag," says Velasquez.
2. Watch Out for Red Flags
If the person you're talking to says something that strikes you as odd, trust your gut. Oftentimes these are signs that something is wrong. A surprisingly common tactic scammers employ is to put you on the defensive, says Velasquez. They might say, "There are a lot of scammers out there, and I need you to prove who you are." Honest people want to prove they're honest, says Velasquez, and might very willingly go along with a scammer's request for, say, a copy of your driver's license. Don't fall for it. An initial love connection should never require you to part with valuable data about yourself.
3. Don't Overshare
"Limit what you share about yourself online—that includes your dating profile," says Velasquez.
There's no need to share every detail about yourself in a profile, because scammers will often use that information to gain your trust. For example, they might indicate that they have all the same interests and beliefs you do as a way for you to let your guard down around them.
But they can also use personally identifiable information, such as your address, your job, where you went to school and more, to unlock more credentials or figure out passwords and other valuable information.
4. Research Your Suitor
In this case, a little paranoia never hurts. Check out the person you're dating by searching for them on Google and social media sites. If they tell you information about what they do or what businesses they run, look into them to make sure they're real. Run their profile pictures through a reverse-image search on TinEye or Google Images. If the picture that shows up is associated with other names or places, that's a major warning sign. Check to see whether their email address shows up on romancescams.org, a site that keeps track of known email addresses of fraudsters.
5. Get a Second Opinion
It's always smart to ask someone else you trust for their opinion. It doesn't have to be a family member or your closest friend. In fact, find someone who isn't as emotionally invested in finding you a relationship. If you can't find that person, talk to an expert. You can live-chat with professionals at the ITRC or call the toll-free number—(888) 400-5530—to discuss any scenarios or get advice for a particular situation.
Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are author's alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer or other company, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. All information, including rates and fees, are accurate as of the date of publication.
This article was originally published on February 12, 2019, and has been updated.