“It was a guy in the Ukraine—and this was my own fault for not listening to my intuition, really, and advice from others,” said Andrew Mondia, a 44-year-old actor and comedian living in Toronto. “But I fell too hard—too head-over-heels in love. I thought there was something there.”
Mondia isn’t talking about discovering you’re just someone’s rebound, or getting burned by someone with a long history of broken hearts behind them, or any of the other classic cases of romantic misfortune.
He’s talking about a very specifically modern one: online dating scams.
“He was going to come to visit me, but asked that I pay for half the flight,” Mondia recalled. “I sent money to a travel agent via this service. I knew deep down it was wrong, and this was not legit, but my emotions got the better of me. I felt desperate for love, really, and decided to send him some money.”
“Afterward,” he said, “he stopped talking to me.”
Unfortunately, Mondia’s story is an all-too-common one.
As meeting people online has become more and more popular, unscrupulous people have moved to take advantage. Sadly, there are lots of lonely people out there willing to ignore their better judgment in pursuit of what feels like love—and internet dating scams have blossomed as a result.
What are dating site scams?
Dating site scams can take many different forms—depending on who’s trying to scam you, how much they’re trying to get out of you, how patient they are, which site or app you meet on, and so forth. The one constant is that someone is using the possibility of a loving relationship (or sometimes, just sex) in order to swindle you financially.
In this common dating scam, you’ll develop an online-only relationship with someone who gets struck with some “bad luck.”
They’ll most likely be living in another country or somewhere far away, and there will be a good reason they can’t see you right away for a date. They’ll be attractive, successful and passionate about you right from the start—basically, too good to be true. Your initial conversations will crackle with excitement.
Then, something will suddenly go wrong—a car crash, some financial misfortune—and they’ll be in dire need of cash. They’ll ask you to send some, and once the money’s been deposited, they’ll stop responding to your messages and may even delete their online dating account entirely.
Expanding on the above, many online dating scams will progress a half-step past simple online interactions.
In some cases, the other person will suggest you build on your burgeoning online romance by actually meeting in person. This can confuse you into thinking the person’s the real deal—after all, why would they want to meet if they weren’t who they claim to be? But that’s just another part of the ruse.
After laying out plans for flying to visit you, they’ll request money to help with travel costs. Perhaps it’s to pay for the plane ticket; perhaps it’s to settle a visa issue or something similar. Again, once you’ve sent the money, the person who was supposed to be the partner of your dreams will disappear.
Catfishing—the act of pretending to be someone you’re not online—is a tactic used by basically every online dating scammer.
However, some people go above and beyond simply lying about themselves in email or text exchanges; in some cases, they’ll actually show up in your life, posing as someone more successful or desirable than they really are. Such scams are rare, but potentially incredibly effective—like this one perpetrated by a con man on more than a dozen women.
This type of scammer will court you, woo you, and use an actual real-life connection to gain your trust and access to your home, your computer, your phone and your finances—all the while waiting for the right moment to defraud you and vanish.
In this cruel dating scam—also known as “sextortion"—your pretend paramour strings you along by leaning on your desire for sexual interaction.
While they may also bring romantic feelings into the mix, they want to create an atmosphere of sensuality, telling you they’re incredibly attracted to you and potentially exchanging sexually charged messages.
They’ll eventually ask you for naked pictures of yourself, purportedly for their own enjoyment. But once the pictures or videos have been sent, they’ll blackmail you and demand you pay them—or else they’ll leak the photos online or to your friends, relatives, employer and so forth.
How can I spot internet dating scams?
Because there are so many different online dating scammers out there, their techniques can vary greatly. That makes the process of recognizing a scam more difficult, but it’s not impossible. If you’re paying attention, you can spot one from a mile away.
For starters, while things start out amazingly, quickly the scammer will start asking for things—and it could turn ugly if you say “no.” Effectively, they’re counting on you to develop a pattern of acquiescing to their demands.
“The person won’t take ‘no' for an answer,” said Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D., a 75-year-old dating coach and author based in Los Angeles. “Or they pressure you to go along with things, or use coercing tactics such as threatening to end the relationship, tears, rage, badgering.”
They are also likely to be over-curious about you. The more the dating scammer knows about you, the better they can manipulate you.
“Don’t tell them too much,” said Tessina. “Don’t give away your address, home phone [or] work location until you know who they are. If you have children, protect them by being discreet.”
Of course, at the end of the day, the biggest red flag is the crux of the scam: the moment they ask for money. If someone you just started dating online is asking for money, that should be a major warning that you’re dealing with a scammer.
And in sextortion-style scams—where by the time they ask for money, it’s too late—there are ways to protect yourself there, too. Essentially, if you’re sending someone sexual photos of yourself—ideally you’re only exchanging that kind of material with people you’ve met in person, but that’s not always the case—make sure not to include identifying information in the photo.
That includes your face, tattoos, shots of your house or living space, your place of work, or anything else that would conclusively identify you.
How to stay safe when online dating
When it comes to ensuring you don’t get caught up in an online dating scam, the most effective defense you have is to retain a degree of skepticism.
No rule, barrier or fail-safe will help you out if you’re truly head over heels; it’s all too easy to get swept up in romantic feelings. That’s especially when the other person is doing everything in their power to make sure that you are—and that’s exactly why dating scams exist.
“Be skeptical, not gullible,” said Tessina. “When you’re meeting people online (it is not dating until it’s face-to-face), you have no way of knowing who they are.
“Don’t be afraid to ask for details, Google the person, ask to talk to friends and family members, let them meet your friends,” she added. “You need objective people to scope them out.”
Beyond just Googling—and using Google’s “Search by Image” function to see if your supposed someone is actually just using a common online dating scammer photo—you can also use people search services to try and get a sense of whether the person you’re falling for is who they say they are.
Being able to pull up concrete details about their lives will hopefully let you know more definitively that you’re dealing with an honest person, not a catfishing scammer.
Taking the good with the bad
Online dating can be a ton of fun. But if you’re not careful, scammers can turn it into a nightmarish experience, where what feels like a budding romance quickly turns into an embarrassing mess; an unpleasant mix of heartbreak and financial misfortune.
That’s why it’s important to stay on your guard—but it’s also important not to get hung up on the prospect of being scammed. If you know the signs to look out for, and how to protect yourself, you’ve got a great chance at coming away totally unscathed.
And at the end of the day, the majority of people on online dating sites aren’t scammers, they’re people just like you, trying to find a little spark of connection that might turn into something big and beautiful.