Geraldine Strawbridge

Geraldine Strawbridge is a graduate from the University of Glasgow. As the Editor of Cyber Radio, Geraldine is focused on delivering the latest cyber security news whilst making cyber security more relatable to people in their everyday lives.

With Valentine’s Day fast approaching, many people will turn to online dating in the hope of finding that special someone. While looking for love online can be exciting, it can also lead to heartbreak, as fraudsters look to exploit vulnerable people at this time of year.

The online dating scene has changed dramatically over the last decade and as technology has progressed, online dating has now become of one of the fasting growing industries with almost 91 million people around the world using dating apps to find love.

Changing demographics and a reduced stigma surrounding online dating has meant that rather than hit a noisy bar or club looking for love, people can download an app and within the comfort of their own home start searching for their perfect match.

The industry is estimated to be worth over $2.5 billion globally and this massive growth market has attracted the attention of fraudsters who are keen to get a slice of the action.

Where there’s money, there’s cybercriminals, and across all online dating platforms, it’s estimated that 1 in every 10 profiles is a fraudulent user. Crooks will set up these fraudulent accounts with the sole intention of scamming lonely people looking for love.

The scams are often run by organised criminal gangs who are looking to exploit as many people as they can to make a profit. According to the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau, there were 3,889 victims of online dating fraud last year, who handed over a record £39m to cybercriminals.

Action Fraud receives more than 350 reports of such scams a month, however the figures are likely to be well in advance of this, but vastly underreported as victims are often too ashamed and embarrassed to admit they’ve been conned in a dating scam.

How do the scams work?

These types of scams will often start on legitimate online dating sites. The fraudster will set up a fake identity using stolen photos, then attempt to build a relationship with you. For weeks, even months, the conversation will flow so that a connection is formed, and a sense of trust is developed.

At some point the fraudster will try and move the conversation away from the dating platform on to another website or area they control. The ultimate goal is to get you to give them money, click on a link, or visit their website so they can infect your computer with malware.

Warning Signs

Online dating scams will vary in their approach, but most will have common red flags that should alert you that all is not as it seems.

  1. Getting personal too fast – You may have just met someone online and after exchanging a few flirty messages back and forth, they start declaring their undying love for you. They may also ask a lot of personal questions, often to get all the details they need to steal your personal identity or determine if they can scam you out of money.
  2. Avoiding questions – Despite all the questions they’ve asked you, when you ask them about themselves, they avoid answering any personal questions. The details they do give, might be vague or at odds with their profile. For example, they might talk about their university education, but their spelling and grammar is poor. Another tactic that’s being used by fraudsters, especially on Tinder, is the use of automated chatbots to respond to any personal questions. There will never been any great depth to these answers so if your suspicions are aroused, it’s best to stay well clear.
  3. Generic profile – Fraudsters won’t spend any more time than they have to developing a credible profile. Many of the fake profiles are littered with spelling mistakes which can be one of the first signs you’re dealing with a scammer. Alternatively, to try and avoid setting off any alarm bells they may avoid including much written content at all. You’ll be able to get a feel quite quickly if a profile has been hastily put together.
  4. Fake photos – One of the main ways a fraudster will entice a victim to connect is by using the photo of a good-looking person, often just a stock image of a model. The crooks will prey on your desire to date a good looking person and hope you don’t question its authenticity.
  5. Requests for money – Ultimately, this is the main aim of the game. After gaining your trust over a matter of weeks or months, they’ll start telling you about their financial problems in the hope you’ll offer some help. If you don’t send money straight away, their story will become more desperate in the hope of spurring you into action. If you do get duped into handing over cash, you can be sure the requests for money won’t end there. There will be more financial hardships and stories will become more elaborate in nature.
  6. Refuse to meet in person – After building up such a close bond online, the natural progression is to meet up in person. Obviously, if this were to happen the game would be up, so your love interest may promise to meet up, then cancel at the last minute. To avoid this scenario, they may also pretend they’re working in another country and because of financial difficulties are unable to visit. Again, this is just another way to con you out of money.

How to protect yourself from online dating scams

  • Check the person is genuine by looking up their name, profile picture or any other information they have provided you with.
  • To check if their profile photo is legitimate or not, you can do a reverse image search using Tin Eye or Google’s Reverse image search. These search engines will show where the photo originated from and where it’s been used. If the photo appears in lots of random places, there’s a good chance you’re dealing with a fraudster.
  • Be wary of requests for money. Never send money, credit card details, online account details or any personal documentation to someone you haven’t met in person.
  • Be careful how much personal information you share on social media. Fraudsters will often use this info to target you with a scam.
  • Take time to study the person’s profile. If there are lots of inconsistencies, poor grammar, spelling mistakes and generally a lack of any real personal information then you should cut any further contact with this person.
  • In addition to providing financial help, a fraudster may ask you to transfer some money on their behalf. There will often be a long-winded story behind this request but it’s just a way to get you to launder money. Money laundering is a criminal offence and you could be prosecuted for agreeing to this.
  • It’s always advisable to use a separate email address and telephone number for online dating. This will provide extra security and enable you to easily cut contact if you suspect you’re dealing with a fraudster.
  • Always use a trusted dating site and communicate using their internal messaging service. Fraudsters will try and lure you off these sites as quickly as possible so there’s no written proof of them ever asking you for money.
  • Use enhanced profile privacy features on your dating site. Some sites only allow paying members to view your profile which reduces the chance of being scammed.
  • Be cautious about sharing personal images with an online love interest. Fraudsters may use any compromising material to blackmail you at a later stage.
  • Trust your instincts. If you think there’s something not quite right then immediately sever all contact with the person.

How to report an online dating scam

If you’ve fallen victim to an online dating scam, you should report it to Action Fraud at  https://www.actionfraud.police.uk/reporting-fraud-and-cyber-crime or call  0300 123 2040.