“Looking for Love” – Anatomy of an Online Dating Scam!

online_dating_-_Google_SearchBy David Nelson, CFA

“Tell me your secrets.” My heart jumped as I read the first line of her email. We were two souls searching, destined to find each other. She seemed to know everything about me and always knew just what to say. Think about it, it’s the perfect phrase. In the end isn’t that what we’re all looking for; that special someone we can share our secrets and desires with.

Kim and I met on Match.com and even though we hadn’t had our first date we seemed to instantly connect. What I didn’t know was that I was being played. I was about to become the VICTIM OF AN ONLINE DATING SCAM!

Johnny Lee’s rendition of the popular country hit “Looking for Love” probably sums up the dating life of many Americans. Desperate for love and finding they have just too little time to meet a potential partner, millions have turned to online dating. Sites like Match.com and eHarmony have been around for some time but today there are countless new choices catering to almost every segment of our society. Social Media now plays a big role with some of the largest like Facebook hooking up with Zoosk, an online dating app.

While many have found their match or at least a Saturday night date there’s an increasing number who’ve been fleeced by fraudsters trolling for victims who let their guard down.

Financial scams have been with us since the dawn of man. Throughout history fraudsters and confidence players have used every tool at their disposal to steal or obtain information and then use it to their advantage. The internet has become the most productive tool since the internal combustion engine. It’s also a criminal’s best friend.

FBI 

Romance_Scam_Demographics

Romance Scam Demographics – IC3 Report 2013

In 2013 the FBI’s IC3 (Internet Crime Complaint Center) received over 6400 complaints related to romance scams with combined losses of close to $82 Million. The truth is the numbers are significantly larger and probably impossible to calculate. Victims are reluctant to come forward because they are either too embarrassed or unwilling to believe they’ve been taken.

Maybe hearing the testimony of someone you know will help you avoid the same pit falls. I’ve spent my life on stage in one form or another, first as a rocker barnstorming across America and in later years as an on air talking head. I’ve never been shy about sharing my triumphs or failures so I’ll pick up the microphone and tell you how I almost became a “VICTIM.”

Falling in love by definition means making yourself vulnerable. Each step down the path potentially opens you up putting you further at risk.

Like many, work takes up most of my time. If I’m not working I’m thinking about it. What little time is left is spent in the gym or flying general aviation aircraft maybe the one true passion in my life.

Turning to an online dating site seemed like a no brainer. In my case it was Match.com but today there are an infinite number of choices. Those who become victims of online dating fraud generally ignore the warnings and habits to avoid posted throughout the site. Some services like chatting and talking by phone anonymously are designed to drive revenue. However, if used properly they can protect you from those more interested in your wallet than your smile.

An eventual date or in person meeting isn’t necessary for those preying on the vulnerable to complete their crime. As a matter of fact a personal encounter almost never takes place especially since most are directing their operations from an overseas location.

Online_Dating_ComputersRed Flags

Anyone who’s been on Match understands how it works. Usually it starts off by clicking on a picture you think is attractive. Some send winks and others start right off with an email. Eventually two members who have an interest in each other start exchanging emails through the site and the mating dance begins.

Like most endeavors in life some fraudsters just aren’t very good at their job and are quickly exposed. However, some are professional grifters and understand how to get into the head of their prey customizing their attack to that individual.

Red Flag 1 – One of the first signs you are dealing with a fraudster is a request to step outside the dating site for communication. They send you an email address saying their subscription is about to expire and have no desire to continue on the site but would like to keep in touch with you.

By doing so the conversations are now totally private, out of the view of company monitors who may be online looking for signs of fraud.

Ok, now you’re emailing back and forth and the hunter is probing for information. Remember this is a potential partner or at least companion so you are inclined to let your guard down and share some personal information.

Like a leopard stalking its prey they study your every move. Common phrases like “tell me your secrets” sound innocent enough. They are creating the bond and connection that will be a valuable asset when they strike looking to cash in.

Soon after we started communicating Kim asked me to email her. She was getting off Match but wanted to keep in touch with me. While I was a little concerned I went along.

Red Flag 2 – Eventually the dating ritual whether traditional or online leads to just what you were looking for in the first place, a DATE! However, during your email encounters the fraudster will tell you they are heading out of town almost always overseas. While this should be an immediate red flag it still sounds innocent enough and adds to the intrigue.

Kim of course was heading out of town on business but would keep in touch via email. She even gave me her New York cell number so we could text each other while she was on the road.

Wow, the beautiful girl I’m falling for from Helsinki is on her way to Kuala Lumpur to close a big business deal. She sounds wonderful. These are the thoughts bouncing around your head, at least they were mine.

Red Flag 3 – The dance continues for another few days but soon morphs into a request for funds to help pay off a hotel bill or some other urgent need so they can come home and see you.

They will offer evidence of wire transfers that hit a snag or funds held off shore to immediately pay you back and maybe even a flight itinerary asking you to pick them up at the airport. At this point they seem desperately in love with you.

If the criminal is successful with the first robbery they push a little further. The longer they can drag this out the more money they can suck from the victim.

Exposed

I’ve been in finance for two decades and have heard every story in the book when it comes to fraud and manipulation so I picked up on this one early in the process. Knowing I wouldn’t take the bait I walked into the kill range. I was certain I was being scammed but wanted to see just how far she would go to pull it off. Even though I was certain this was a fraud there was a part of my brain still hoping she was for real.

Kim kept bombarding me with desperate emails and texts tugging at my heart while she was reaching for my wallet. When I didn’t oblige, the emails eventually stopped and she went on to her next victim. I can’t know for sure but she was likely working several marks at the same time. It’s a numbers game. Run the same scam on as many as you can and eventually you hit pay dirt.

The FBI warns that online dating scams are a growing concern and have posted the following tips on their site.

Recognizing an Online Dating Scam Artist

Your online “date” may only be interested in your money if he or she:

  • Presses you to leave the dating website you met through and to communicate using personal e-mail or instant messaging;
  • Professes instant feelings of love;
  • Sends you a photograph of himself or herself that looks like something from a glamour magazine;
  • Claims to be from the U.S. and is traveling or working overseas;
  • Makes plans to visit you but is then unable to do so because of a tragic event; or
  • Asks for money for a variety of reasons (travel, medical emergencies, hotel bills, hospitals bills for child or other relative, visas or other official documents, losses from a financial setback or crime victimization).

A quick search on the web brings up dozens of stories like this from the Baltimore Sun revealing a $1.1 Million online dating scam that preyed on the elderly.

Fraud in all its forms share similar characteristics and hopefully some of what you’ve read here will help you avoid the pitfalls. Most scams focus on get rich quick schemes and our desire to get something for nothing.

Sometimes, it hits those just “Looking for Love.”