Here’s How To Know if You’re Dating a Scammer
Online dating is one of the most popular ways to meet a potential partner, whether it’s for a quick fling or a serious relationship. According to the Pew Research Center, 30% of Americans have used an online dating app or site. And that number jumps to 48% for people between 18 and 29 years old [*].
But are dating sites and apps always safe to use?
Unfortunately, scammers target online dating services to commit identity theft and financial fraud. In 2021, over 24,000 Americans were hit by romance scams, with scammers stealing over $1 billion [*].
If you’re searching for a partner, the last thing you want is to find a scammer instead.
In this guide, we’ll cover the dangers of online dating, how to spot a romance scammer, and the most common online dating scams and how you can avoid them.
How Do Online Dating Scams Work?
Dating apps have exploded in popularity over the last few years. And it’s not just Tinder, OkCupid, or Match.com. There are specialized platforms promising connections for people with the same tastes in music and even food.
Regardless of the dating site or app, online dating scams almost always follow a similar pattern:
- First, the scammer creates a fake profile. They’ll often steal photos from an existing (usually attractive) person’s social media or dating profile. These fake attractive profiles are also known as “catfishing.”
- Once you match, the scammer quickly moves the relationship forward. They’ll quickly express their love and ask you to communicate off the dating app and instead use Snapchat, WhatsApp, or Telegram.
- After they’ve gained your trust, they’ll ask you for personal details, gifts, or even money. They’ll create elaborate scenarios where they need your “help” paying for their children or medical treatments or to get them out of trouble. Increasingly, scammers on dating sites will try to get you to invest in a cryptocurrency app or to sign up for a website.
- Throughout the “relationship,” they’ll always find ways to get out of visiting you in person or even appearing on video chat. They might provide you with their phone number, but they will never be available when you call (and will only call you back at a later time).
- Ultimately, the end goals of online dating scams can vary. The scammer may stop at getting you to visit a phishing site, but there’s also the possibility you’ll end up the victim of identity theft. No matter what happens, you’ll be left embarrassed and potentially out of any money or gifts you sent them.
Unfortunately, dating platforms don’t do a good job of verifying individual accounts. Even though many websites ask for your Facebook account, that’s a trivial workaround for many online scammers.
The risks of online dating are very real. So what online dating scams, frauds, and schemes should you be on the lookout for?
11 Dangers of Online Dating (and How To Avoid Them)
- Catfishing (i.e., fake online dating profiles)
- Romance scammers asking for money
- Phishing for personal information (identity theft romance scams)
- Fake online dating and “hookup” site scams
- Online dating cryptocurrency investment scams
- Blackmail and extortion using your sensitive photos (sextortion)
- Getting you to visit phishing and malware-infected websites
- Overseas doctors, developers, and military romance scams
- SMS 2FA scam (i.e., verification scams)
- Money mule romance scams
- Inheritance scams on dating sites
Online dating scams can come in many forms. However, knowing what these scams and their risks and dangers are will help you spot them and prevent them from actually doing harm.
1. Catfishing (i.e., fake online dating profiles)
“Catfishing” is the term used to describe a fake online dating profile that uses attractive photos to “lure” victims into a relationship. Catfishing scams often feel too good to be true, yet their victims continue with them in the hope that they are real.
Sadly, what often happens is that your "perfect match" starts asking for sensitive information or money.
If you think a profile might be using stolen photos, do a reverse image search on Google. This will show you where else the photos are posted online. If they’re on other social media accounts or from magazines, you can quickly tell it’s a scam.
Warning signs of a catfishing scam:
- The profile photos are too attractive. If an online dating profile looks like a supermodel or has magazine-quality photos, it’s most likely a scam.
- They only use the same few images across social media and dating profiles. Catfishers only have access to a few images. If they can’t send you recent or personal ones, they could be a scam.
- They’re never able to go on video chat. Or, if they do, their webcam will be “broken” or will only show a quick, low-quality, and darkly lit video.
2. Romance scammers asking for money
The number one danger of online dating is being tricked into sending money or handing over your financial information. Scammers want you to send them cash and gift cards or to provide them with information they can use to commit financial fraud.
In most cases, these money scams take place on sites like match.com where most people are looking for a long-term relationship. The scammer will gain your trust and then ask you to help with an unexpected emergency, for example, medical expenses, needing to take care of a relative, etc.
Scammers will often ask for money or gifts to further your relationship. For example, they need money for a new laptop so you can video chat with them or they want you to send gifts that “prove” your love.
Warning signs of a romance scammer trying to steal your money:
- They ask for money (especially cash, gift cards, or cryptocurrency) as a way to “prove” your love.
- Their life feels like a soap opera. But they never have the money to deal with all the unexpected emergencies that come up.
- They express their love quickly and ask lots of personal questions without revealing much about themselves.
3. Phishing for personal information (identity theft romance scams)
Identity thieves will use dating apps as part of a long-term scam that can even spill over offline and impact you in the real world.
In these dating scams, a fake account will try to get you to give up personal details, such as your address, names of relatives, and where you work. Some of these questions will feel normal for dating. But they can help scammers guess passwords and hack into your online accounts.
Some scammers will even try to get you to give up sensitive information like your Social Security number (SSN), bank account information, or email password (to “prove” you’re not hiding other relationships from them).
All this information puts you at risk of identity theft. With even a few pieces of sensitive data, scammers can empty your bank account, take out loans and credit cards in your name, or even steal your tax refund.
Warning signs of an identity theft romance scam:
- They ask probing personal questions on your first date. They're especially interested in your personal history, such as past addresses, your mother’s maiden name, and pets’ names.
- They’re adamant about knowing where you live and work.
- They ask you to send photos of your ID or other sensitive documents to “prove” you are who you say you are.
4. Fake online dating and “hookup” sites
Some scammers try to push victims into signing up for fake online dating sites. These fake websites offer the promise of easy hookups or the “perfect match,” but are really just full of bots and fake accounts.
To sign up, you’ll often need to pay a fee and provide personal details or even photos of your ID for verification (which can be used for identity theft).
At best, you’ll only waste your time and a bit of money on these sites. However, some fake dating sites are loaded full of malware, which can infect your devices.
Malware can scan your device for sensitive information like banking information, take over your camera, or even lock you out of your device until you pay a “ransom.” Before signing up for an unfamiliar dating service, install antivirus software with malware protection.
Warning signs of a fake online dating site scam:
- The website has the warning signs of a phishing site. For example, poor design, low-quality images, spelling mistakes, and charged language.
- New matches ask you to view their photos on a different site or want you to download an attachment. They might also want to show you nude photos immediately and push you to visit a different site.
- The sign-up process is light on dating questions but heavy on personal details and even financial information.
- You get a huge influx of attention as soon as you sign up — even if you haven’t finished filling out your profile or uploading photos.
5. Online dating cryptocurrency investment scams
Cryptocurrency investments are one of the more recent (and dangerous) online dating scams. Everywhere from the New York Times to USA Today has shared stories of victims losing thousands to crypto dating scams.
In this scam, the fraudsters build a long-term relationship with their mark. As they get to know each other, the scammer will start talking about their interest in cryptocurrencies. Eventually, they'll offer to “guide” the victim in their own investments.
Next, they’ll get the victim to open a legitimate cryptocurrency account and deposit money into it. Then, they’ll provide a link to a “special” cryptocurrency exchange for the victim to move their Bitcoin or Ethereum into. This exchange will show high levels of returns, prompting the victim to invest more.
But when they try to withdraw any of their “earnings,” they’ll be told to pay a massive tax bill or the site will shut down and their money will be lost.
The FBI estimates 24,000 people fell victim to cryptocurrency dating scams in 2021, losing over $1 billion [*].
Warning signs of a cryptocurrency romance scam:
- They regularly mention cryptocurrency and tout amazing returns on their investments.
- They claim to have “special knowledge” that will provide you with a huge return with little to no risk.
- They’ll send you links to cryptocurrency exchanges that will show your investment. In reality, these links go to the scammer's “crypto wallet.” This is essentially the same as handing over cash to them.
6. Blackmail and extortion using your sensitive photos (sextortion)
Many people on dating sites are looking for a quick sexual relationship. In these scams, the fraudster will ask for sensitive photos and videos with the promise of sending their own in return. But after you send them, the scammer will threaten to leak them to your friends and family if you don’t pay a ransom.
Unfortunately, this isn’t an empty threat. Scammers can often find the names and contact details of your close friends, family, and coworkers through your social media profiles or online footprint.
It’s a safe bet to always assume that anything you send to someone online could be shared with your friends, family, and coworkers.
Warning signs of a sextortion scam:
- They want you to send nude photos or videos and push for you to be identifiable in them (i.e., they can see your face).
- They promise to send you photos or videos in return. In some cases, scammers will steal sensitive photos from online accounts and share those first to build your trust.
7. Getting you to visit phishing and malware-infected websites
Sometimes online dating scams follow the same pattern as a spam email. After matching, the scammer quickly sends you a link or asks to email you an attachment (like a photo or similar).
But these links and attachments may contain malware or ransomware. The scammer might also send you to a spoofed version of a site you recognize — like Facebook or Twitter — and steal your login credentials.
Warning signs of a malware or phishing site dating scam:
- They send you a link in a message that is either shortened (hiding its true destination) or looks legitimate.
- The site you enter shows signs of being a phishing site, such as typos and grammatical errors or an “unsecure” URL. Secure sites use HTTPS, not HTTP, and will include a padlock symbol near their URL.
8. Overseas doctors, developers, or military romance scams
Some scammers pretend to be overseas doctors or developers to seem more legitimate. They may also say they’re in the military and stationed in another country.
Not only are these jobs the perfect excuse for why they can’t meet in person, but they also instill trust in their victim. But once you’re “hooked” in the relationship, the scammer will ask for money to help their family “back home” or for an investment opportunity.
They’ll claim to be dealing with banking issues because they’re overseas but promise to pay you back. After all, they’re successful and trustworthy. But any money you send will never be repaid. And if you question them too much, they’ll disappear and delete their accounts.
Warning signs of an overseas romance scam:
- They claim to have a high-paying or secure job but are unable to pay for basic necessities or access their bank account.
- They’ve come across a once-in-a-lifetime investment opportunity overseas and want you to be a part of it.
- They are suddenly in legal trouble and unable to pay fees or fines.
- They’ve never able to go on video calls due to “poor connections” or time zone differences. If you call, they’re never around to answer.
9. SMS two-factor authentication scam (verification code scam)
Two-factor-authentication (2FA) is an additional security measure for your online accounts that requires a one-time-use code along with your username and password. Most people opt to get their 2FA codes sent to them over SMS. However, scammers on dating sites have started using this to bypass the security feature.
In a verification code scam, the scammer claims that a verification code isn’t working for them and asks to send the code to your number instead.
In reality, they’re trying to hack one of your accounts — such as your email, banking, or social media — and want you to give them your own 2FA code.
Warning signs of a 2FA dating site scam:
- They claim they can’t get into an account and want to send you a verification code.
- You receive failed log-in attempt emails from your online services before they ask to send you a code.
10. “Money Mule” romance scams
In this variation a fraudster gets you to unknowingly launder money for them.
Over the course of your “relationship”, the scammer will send you money and ask you to purchase gift cards, cryptocurrency, or foreign currencies. They might also ask you to open a bank account or send and receive packages.
While you might think you’re doing them a favor, you’ve actually become a “money mule” and could be liable for criminal charges.
Never buy gift cards, currency, or cryptocurrency, even as a favor for a potential partner, and be very wary if anyone asks you to do that.
Warning signs of a money mule romance scam:
- They ask you to buy gift cards for them or for someone else (promising to pay you back).
- They ask you to receive or send money and packages on behalf of themselves or someone else.
- They ask you to open a bank account in their name.
11. Inheritance scams
This is a common email scam but has made its way to dating apps and websites. After gaining a victim’s trust, the scammer pretends that they have a large inheritance waiting to be claimed. But the only way to claim the funds is to pay some kind of fee that would release the money.
The scammer asks their target for the money to claim the inheritance, promising to not only pay them back, but to share the large sum with them. This is all a scam, of course, and victims often never hear from the scammers again after sending them money.
The best way to avoid falling for this scam is to avoid ever sending someone money and to be wary if they don’t want to meet in real life.
Warning signs of inheritance scams on dating sites:
- They start talking about wealthy relatives who’ve left them a large inheritance.
- They claim to have “money issues” that prevent them from paying fees and need your help.
How To Quickly Identify an Online Romance Scammer
Despite the number of different online dating scams, most scammers use the same tricks and tactics. If you think you’re dealing with a fraudulent dating profile, ask these questions:
- Is their profile “too perfect” (job, photos, etc)?
- Do they always claim to be traveling or overseas? If so, why are they trying to start a relationship with you?
- Are they trying to move the relationship forward quickly in terms of intimacy? Do they pressure you to do the same?
- Are they asking you for money, gifts, or financial “help” of any kind?
- Do they always have issues when it’s time to video chat, talk on the phone, or meet in person?
- Have they mentioned too-good-to-be-true investments or opportunities (cryptocurrencies, inheritances, etc.)? Do they ask if you want to make a lot of money with no risk?
- Are they constantly dealing with emergencies and needing help paying their bills?
- Do they ask you very personal questions?
- Are they trying to get you to move the conversation to a different dating site or WhatsApp?
- Do they ask you to “prove” yourself (that you’re trustworthy or that you love them)?
- Do they seem pushy or argumentative if you start questioning them?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you could be at risk of falling for an online romance scammer.
How To Protect Yourself from the Dangers of Online Dating
Follow these dating safety tips to keep yourself safe in the online world:
Limit giving away personal details
Find a balance between sharing enough to build a connection and also protecting yourself by:
- Using unique photos: If you reuse your social media photos on dating sites, scammers can use them to find your other accounts and learn more about you.
- Not giving away too much info: Avoid giving away addresses, your employer’s identity, and other personal info. This goes for both your profile and in conversations.
- Keeping messages on the app: A telltale sign of a scammer is when they try to take conversations off the app. Try to keep messaging on the app as much as possible. If you talk on the phone, use an alternative phone number service like Google Voice.
The same goes for dating or meeting up in person. Unfortunately, there have been reports of sex offenders using dating apps and sites like Tinder and Bumble [*]. Always put your safety first when dating online and in person.
Do your research
If you feel a connection with someone, do a quick Google search of their photos and name to make sure they’re not a scammer.
Always be careful and skeptical
Meeting people offline (in a public place at first) is always the first step toward trust. Be very careful about doing any favors or trusting a match too much at first if you haven’t even met them in real life. If they start talking about money, needing help, or having some kind of medical emergency, you should take that as a red flag.
Secure your accounts and identity
Even if you accidentally give up details to a romance scammer, you can take preventative measures to protect your accounts. Use secure passwords, a password manager, and 2FA on all your accounts. Sign up for credit monitoring to alert you if anyone has gained access to your financial information.
Were You Scammed on an Online Dating Site? Do This ASAP
Don’t be embarrassed if you got scammed on an online dating site or app — it happens to thousands of online daters. Instead, stay calm and take the following steps depending on how severe the scam is:
- If you spot the red flags of a romance scammer: Break off contact with them and block and report their account to the dating site you’re using.
- If you give someone sensitive information: Secure your online and financial accounts by changing your passwords, setting up a fraud alert with the credit monitoring agencies, and reporting the fraud to the FTC at reportfraud.ftc.gov.
- If you sent a scammer money: Report the fraud to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3). You may be able to reverse wire transfers or track gift cards by contacting the company you sent them through.
- If you’re the victim of identity theft or fraud: Look for the warning signs of identity theft. If you recognize any, follow these steps to secure your accounts and recover from identity theft. Be sure you also report the identity theft to the FTC at IdentityTheft.gov.
The Bottom Line: Online Dating Can Be Safe
While the dangers of online dating can seem scary, it’s no reason to give up on it. Stay safe by being cautious about who you interact with until you can confirm their identity. And always be on the lookout for the warning signs of typical online dating scams.
For added protection, consider signing up for Aura’s all-in-one digital security solution. Aura protects you from identity theft, financial fraud, and viruses like malware. Plus, if the worst happens, you have access to 24/7 Fraud Resolution Specialists and are covered by a $1,000,000 insurance policy for eligible losses due to identity theft.