Online dating safety tips

According to the authorities, dating and romance scams are one of the fastest-growing areas of fraud online.  The FBI issued an official  warning this year, saying that women over 40 were particularly at risk.

Here’s how the FBI says the romance scam usually works.

You’re contacted online by someone who appears interested in you. He or she may have a profile you can read or a picture that is emailed to you. For weeks, even months, you may chat back and forth with one another, forming a connection. You may even be sent flowers or other gifts. But ultimately, it’s going to happen; your new-found “friend” is going to ask you for money.

Don’t be a victim, check out these tips and take them to heart:

  • If you’re suspicious, Google the message text he/she sends you.   Unlike spam, dating scams require a fair amount of work from the criminals – so they tend to cut corners. Often, the ‘romantic’ message you receive has been sent to dozens of other people. Put quotes around it and Google it: if it brings up results from former victims, you should start to worry. If the messages are in broken English, but your lover claims to be American, it’s another good reason to be cautious. Ask advice from a site administrator, or a friend.
  • Don’t be ashamed to ‘play detective’.  Millions of people use dating sites, but they DO carry risks that normal dating does not. You don’t know whether the person you are speaking to is real, where they’re from, or whether the photos are them, or someone different. In the old days, you would often meet people via friends of friends–but you don’t have this reassurance online. So play detective.  If they won’t tell you where they work, worry. Likewise, if they keep asking questions about you, but never answer any about themselves, worry. Search for them on LinkedIn, or just via Google – it’s almost impossible NOT to leave traces online these days. If someone has not, they probably are not real.
  • If their photos are really glossy, be afraid.  Oddly, one of the giveaways that your lover may not be who they seem is that they look too good–as in, the photographs are professional. Few normal people would make this much effort–but for a cybercriminal, the easiest way to create a fake profile is to use glamorous pictures from the web, shot by professional photographers.
  • Don’t hand over information bit by bit. Dating sites are a huge growth area for cybercrime, and scams vary from simple cons, where people are asked for money for visas, to classic phishing. The problem is that handing over information is a normal part of romance–but perfect for identity thieves. Until you have verified that the person is genuine, do not give out your address, ever, and if possible limit other details such as workplaces and contact details. 
  • Don’t share ‘racy’ photos with people you have not met.  One variation of today’s dating scams is a simple one – blackmail. Do not hand over pictures you would be embarrassed to see published online–otherwise, you’re at risk from blackmailers. Even racy messages can be a tool for criminals – particularly if you’re attached. Keep things clean until you know your ‘romance’ is real. Allowing someone to see you via webcam, or to, for instance, undress on webcam, is particularly risky.
  • If your ‘lover’ sends you a photo which you need to click on, worry.  Keep antivirus software running and be wary of profiles without images in the first place. If they have an image, ask them to add it to their profile.
  • Long-distance love DOES happen – but be wary.  Profiles without pictures, details and interests are a clear warning of a fake profile. US law enforcement say that common signs are people who claim to be American but say they are working abroad, then suddenly need plane fare home.
  • Stick to reputable sites.  Match.com and other ‘major’ sites such as eHarmony have a reputation to protect so their systems will help to keep you safe (accusations of fake profiles notwithstanding). On Match, for instance, you can instantly flag any email or message as suspicious, and flag any profile you think isn’t quite right. Match will investigate rapidly. Other large, reputable sites have similar systems. Smaller, specialist sites–particularly those focused on short-term relationships–won’t offer the same peace of mind. However, sites which cater to a particular cultural group may achieve higher levels of trust if they fly under the radar of cyber criminals. Expect ‘Free’ sites to be the most dangerous the barrier to entry is low for enterprising cybercriminals.
  • Don’t be persuaded to switch to another social network, email or IM.  Millions of people use dating sites, and the ‘big’ sites are facing epidemic levels of fake profiles, phishing and other scams, so cybercriminals will often persuade victims to switch to another site,  either a social site, or simply email. This way, they can continue the fraud in private.
  • If you think, “It’s all happening so fast!” It’s time to worry.  Dating scams are one of the few areas of cybercrime where gangs play a ‘long game’ – sometimes stringing victims along for weeks or months. But most are impatient to be paid - so any online ‘lover’ who declares undying love in the space of a few emails should be regarded with extreme suspicion.
  • Do not send money, ever.  The ‘red flag’ moment comes when your ‘lover’ asks for money. Do not send it–whether it’s for flights, or for life-saving surgery. Even if the story is so tragic you feel you HAVE to help. 
    If the subject of money comes up early in a relationship, be wary. If someone asks outright for a Western Union payment or bank wire transfer, you may well be dealing with a criminal. Speak to a site administrator if possible. Talk to a friend – or ask advice from an independent agency, or local law enforcement.