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How to Tell if Your Tinder Match Is Scamming You

How to Tell if Your Tinder Match Is Scamming You
How to Tell if Your Tinder Match Is Scamming You

Being in love has always meant taking risks and exposing your soft emotional underbelly to another person who may not reciprocate your feelings. Even worse, not every suitor has the best intentions. Scammers and con artists have long recognized the opportunity to make a quick buck from the natural desire for affection. What that looks like today is the proliferation of online dating scams on social media apps and websites ranging from Tinder to LinkedIn. The FBI reported last February that, in 2016, it logged almost 15,000 complaints about online romance scams for losses exceeding $230 million (a statistic that's probably a gross underestimate of the actual scams, given victims often don't realize they've been scammed or are too embarrassed to report the crime).

"Quite frankly, scammers are anywhere and everywhere," said Wayne May, who with a small team runs ScamSurvivors, an online support group for people taken by scammers. In an age where searching for love can mean going through dozens, hundreds or even thousands of online profiles before finding Mr. or Mrs. Right, this is how you protect your bank account from those who see you as a potential payday rather than a romantic partner.

Profile of an online dating scammer

For the uninitiated, the term "romance scammer" might conjure up the notion of a silver-tongued Adonis or a femme fatale who robs the victim of money but gives them passionate memories that will last a lifetime. In reality, the work of these scammers more closely resembles that of a marketing intern than a suave, high-end thief, consisting of filling in the name and details of their latest online dating scam target on a templated, mass-produced email.

If anything can shatter your idealized vision of a romance scammer, it's the profiles they post on just about every dating and social media app and website. Scammers create these fabrications to bait their potential victims, and to the skeptical eye, they appear almost comical in their lack of authenticity.

Image courtesy ScamSurvivors
Image courtesy ScamSurvivors

An example of a profile used by a scammer

For example, the profile information in the scammer profile above claims the person is African-American when the photo clearly shows a Caucasian woman. That's a relatively subtle discrepancy compared to some posts that feature profile photos of celebrities such as Justin Bieber. According to May, the blatant falsehoods in online dating scam profiles aren't just the result of laziness or pop-culture ignorance. "By putting in these kind of mistakes, the people who see them and don't fall for it are going to be immediately gotten rid of," he said. "It's only the people who don't realize it's a scam, don't realize who the person really is, would fall for it. And they just need one person to fall for the scam to possibly make $100,000."

Because groups of online dating scammers mass produce these profiles, May says it's possible to identify where the fraudster is located based on regional patterns. Messages from scammers located in Russia or Ukraine tend to use the victim's actual name, since automated programs make it easy to fabricate a personalized message. Scammers in West African nations, such as Nigeria, Ghana or the Ivory Coast, rely more on recycled, prewritten scripts and will usually call their mark "honey," "sweetie" or some other generic term of endearment.

A map showing where some of the scammers work
A map showing where some of the scammers work

Methods of attack

Regardless of their origin, online dating scammers have one goal in mind—to separate you from your money. According to a 2017 report from the Better Business Bureau, the median amount made by a scammer that year was $2,373. May, who has dealt with thousands of victims through ScamSurvivors, pegs the number closer to $10,000. "But we've seen cases where people have lost half a million dollars," he said. "We've seen cases where people have lost $50. It varies."

In order to gain your affection (and trust), the romance scammer will usually present a sympathetic story meant to lower your defenses. For example, they'll claim to have recently lost a spouse to a tragic accident or disease, or they're a struggling single parent. One popular method involves impersonating a member of the armed forces stationed abroad (this fiction has become so prevalent among online dating scammers that the Army's Criminal Investigation Command released a statement saying people should not give any money to people they've met claiming to be soldiers).

Document from the U.S. Army
Document from the U.S. Army

In this example of a fake document shared by the U.S. Army, the scammer is trying to fool the victim into thinking he or she has to pay money in order for the (fictional) soldier to go on leave.

Once the messages start flying back and forth, the scammer will quickly try to take the conversation off of whatever platform you met—Tinder, Facebook, etc.—and start texting and emailing you directly. This makes it more difficult for you to disengage with them and allows them to constantly wear you down with repeated messages declaring their affection. If the con develops to the point where you actually talk to each other on the phone, the scammer will often call at odd times of the day—especially late at night—to keep you sleep-deprived and create a sense of social isolation from friends and family. "They will use a lot of psychological tricks," May said. "I don't think they realize they're using them, but do so because they've seen it work in the past."

Sometimes, during the initial "courtship," the scammer may test your willingness to send money with small requests, usually to help cover a minor medical cost or maybe to purchase a birthday gift for their fictional child. Once the scammer senses you're completely enthralled, they'll start going after the big money. All of a sudden, your newfound love interest may start developing all sorts of major (and, most importantly, expensive) health problems and will need you to send them money—sometimes through a wire transfer, but increasingly through a bank-to-bank transaction. Or maybe they're finally ready to join you in America, but they need you to pay for a plane ticket and some unusual "visa fees." The exact excuse they give doesn't matter, so long as it gets your money into their pockets.

What to do if you're a victim of an online dating scam

If a victim of an online romance scam discovers what they thought was a loving, meaningful relationship was a fraud, there's not much they can do to recover money already sent. The proliferation of fake IDs and use of intermediaries means money sent via wire transfer or direct bank-to-bank transfer proves difficult to recover. Sometimes con artists juggling multiple marks will launder money through several victims, asking one person to send money to another victim's bank account, who will then wire the money to the scammer, who disappears leaving confusion in his or her wake.

May implores victims to avoid confronting scammers directly. Instead, you should immediately cut off all contact. May doesn't want victims to alert scammers whose methods have been revealed as fraudulent, preferring they continue to operate with their outdated scripts and tricks. He compiles these at ScamSurvivors as a free resource to the public. But another reason to avoid telling the scammer the jig is up is because they often manage to spin what should be the end of the fraud into another story meant to entrap you. "They'll say 'Yes, I was trying to scam you, but during that time I actually did fall in love,' and begin the scam all over again," said May.

After being taken advantage of, most people may find avoiding a confrontation with the con artist a difficult pill to swallow, and would doubtlessly prefer to avoid scammers altogether. But in today's digital age, there's no "scammer-free" website or app, according to May. "If there's a way of contacting people, scammers will be there," he said.