It is a truth universally acknowledged that we’re all looking for a special someone to share our lives with. Some of us are lucky enough to find that person. For the rest, the search goes on – and increasingly it happens online. The global market is predicted to reach nearly US$3.6 billion by 2025 as a result.

But there is another truth universally acknowledged: you can’t believe everything you read or everyone you meet on the internet. The web is awash with people who aren’t who they say they are. Very often, their aim is to part us from our money. They are master manipulators of human emotion. And in lonely hearts, they have the perfect victims.

But there are things you can do to leave romance scammers high and dry this Valentine’s Day. We reveal all below.

How do romance scams work?

Romance or dating scams, sometimes also called catfishing scams, happen when fraudsters adopt fake personas on dating sites. They befriend lonely hearts, building up a rapport with them and potentially even proposing marriage. But pretty soon they’ll ask for money, or for you to open a new bank account they can use. They use the latter for laundering the proceeds of crime, effectively turning the romance fraud victim into an unwitting money mule. Figures from 2018 claimed 30% of victims were used as money mules. They may even try to persuade you to send compromising photos or videos, that later will be used against you in blackmail attempts.

One thing is clear: dating fraud is big business. Although only the eighth most commonly reported cybercrime type in the US last year, romance fraud was the second highest-grossing, raking in over US$600 million for the bad guys, which was even more than half a billion dollars in the year before.

How to tell if you’re being scammed

Fortunately, many of these scams follow a similar pattern. Tell-tale signs include scammers that:

  • Pretend to be living or working outside of the country the victim is located in
  • Claim to be working on an oil rig, in the military, or as a doctor
  • Ask lots of personal questions of the victim
  • Are evasive when asked questions about their lives
  • Escalate relationships with the victim to ‘love’ very quickly
  • Make increasingly elaborate excuses for not meeting in person or joining a video call
  • Often look to move the conversation quickly off the dating site to private chat
  • Have picture-perfect profile photos
  • Tell convoluted stories about why they need money, including to pay for:
    • Travel expenses like plane tickets
    • Medical expenses
    • Visas and travel documents
    • Gambling debts
    • Customs fees levied on imported items

If they do ask for money, romance scammers will usually either ask for it to be wired, or potentially request their sweetheart purchase gift cards or cash reload/prepaid cards. If the victim refuses, the scammer will continue to harass them until they relent, potentially using ever more elaborate excuses as to why they need the money. Some victims have lost tens or even hundreds of thousands in this way.

How to outsmart a dating scammer

ESET research reveals that 52% of people believe loneliness around Valentine’s Day makes them more vulnerable to methods used by dating fraudsters. So what can you do to send those romance fraudsters packing?

It pays to do some research up-front about anyone you meet online. It may not sound very romantic, but it could save you a lot of heartache, and money, in the long run. Consider:

  • A reverse look-up search of their profile picture to see if it matches other names or details
  • Searching for their name and details online to see if the story checks out

To minimize the chances of being singled out by a potential romance fraudster, don’t overshare personal details publicly on social media. Go slowly with any new online relationship and ask lots of questions. If they are evasive, it should be raising serious red flags. It goes without saying that you should never send money to anyone you haven’t met in person, open new bank accounts for them, or send compromising photos/videos.

What to do if you suspect you have become a victim

  • Cease all communications with the individual immediately
  • Talk to a friend or family member to get an honest opinion of them
  • If you paid them via a gift card, contact the provider immediately and check if they can refund the money
  • Report the incident to the authorities, e.g., the FTC in the US, or Action Fraud in the UK

Socially distanced dating has become increasingly common in the pandemic era. Unfortunately, this also opens the door for fraudsters. If the worst happens and you end up a victim, it’s really important not to suffer in silence. Don’t be too embarrassed to report the crime. Your actions could save more heartache for others.