Online Love Scams
In the 2021 American romantic comedy movie Love Hard, Natalie met Josh on a dating app, and they immediately hit off online. They had long, late-night texts, and Josh was virtually everything she’d ever wanted in a partner. He was attentive, witty, and he could hold a conversation without making her uncomfortable.
What’s more? Josh was incredibly handsome in his display profile photo. Feeling like she’d met her soulmate, Natalie flew 3,000 miles to surprise him for Christmas. She arrived at his address only to find out she had been catfished. The Josh on the display profile was totally different from the version she met in real life.
Natalie was righteously pissed, but she was unable to leave town immediately. Natalie had no choice but to stay with Josh and his family. She got to know him better, and the two eventually hit it off—for real this time.
While Love Hard is a lighthearted romantic comedy, the real-life experience of thousands of Americans looking to find love online is anything but lighthearted. Although Natalie did not lose money, she felt cheated and taken for a fool. Still, she got a happy ending. People in real life do not get a happy ending when they get catfished. It is a quagmire that starts out perfect and leaves the victims with a yawning emotional chasm and ever greater financial loss.
Emptied bank accounts aside, victims have described the pain they feel when they discover they have been catfished as akin to losing a partner. Many suffer lasting emotional distress and lose their ability to trust other people.
Scammers are adept at entrapping victims in an all-consuming, addictive love. Next, they exploit this vulnerability. It typically starts with asking small favors, which later snowballs into a desperate need for money before they disappear like the flame of a burnt-out match. The victims, like the matchstick, never remain the same.
Who are these victims? Everyone. People in their 40s and 50s are most likely to be catfished, per state reports obtained from the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center. Younger people are just as likely to be catfished, but they are less likely to lose money in the process.
Most catfishing happens online, aided by smart technology. First, scammers bypass location restrictions on dating apps and social media platforms by using virtual private networks (VPNs). These apps and platforms are designed to connect people to other people in their locale. But by using a VPN, a scammer who is more than 6,000 miles away can target and connect with a victim who will be none-the-wiser.
Most low-level scammers cast a wide net with broadcast messages, hoping to reel in unsuspecting victims. In contrast, organized scammers profile their target victims. They go through publicly available information about a potential victim to build the most appealing facade.
While low-level scammers rely on instant messaging and voice calls to groom their victims, organized scammers also go further a level further. These criminals even do video calls, using technology to superimpose a moving image on their face. Voice phone calls are as easy as using VoIP technology to spoof their numbers to a typical US phone number, complete with a local area code and the other seven digits.
Technology bridges distance, and people find it easier to meet new persons online. Many people now meet the loves of their lives on their phones. Still, dating by phone is not 100% safe. But don’t cross it off yet. You can still find love online without falling for lovebombing tactics by scammers.
One way to start protecting yourself is to restrict public access to your social media profiles. Platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn have privacy modes that only let persons you know to see your activities and feed. Other people can still see your name and profile picture, but they won’t have access to your feed and online life story. This way, you reduce the chances of a scammer rummaging through your life and looking for vulnerabilities you never knew existed.
Also, use databases like Phonenumbers.org to perform a reverse phone lookup on the number your online heartthrob provided or used to call you. This database lets you find the registered information of the phone number owner, including names, addresses, work history, criminal records, and property information.
Spoofed numbers will typically have no history, or the information provided by the individual will be different from what you see with a reverse search. Furthermore, government agencies recommend not sharing your card details, financial information, or sending money to someone you only know online, even if you have known them for ages. If they happen to be a con artist and defraud you of your life’s savings, recovering these stolen funds is difficult. In many cases, it is impossible, especially when you send cryptocurrency.
Knowing how online love scams happen will also help you avoid falling victim.
Online love scams don’t happen overnight. Con artists take deliberate, delicate care to groom their victims over several months and even years. One thing that is common to all dating scams is requests for money. They start with small fish-hook requests like needing money to sort overdue bills and pay for food.
Of course, they make a false gesture to pay back, waiting for you to protest that the amount is insignificant. But this is the scammer testing the waters. They soon harpoon their victims with “desperately needed” money for debt repayments, sponsor business ventures, or fund their flight itinerary to finally meet up in person. Finally, when a scammer has squeezed their victim of the maximum amount they can, or at the slightest hint they have been made, they disappear without a trace.
Most people feel a deep sense of shame when they discover that they have been catfished. They also fear victim-blaming by society and prefer to hold on to the bit of dignity they have left. So, a large number of scams go unreported.
If you have been scammed on a dating app, report the crime to the platform, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. You can also find support with loved ones and organizations like the Society of Citizens Against Relationship Scams (SCARS).