Con Watch: Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places

Steve Weisman is a lawyer, college professor, author, and one of the country’s leading experts in cybersecurity, identity theft, and scams. See Steve’s other Con Watch articles.

Looking for love and romance are basic human drives, and criminals take advantage of this with numerous romance scams. The FTC’s most reported scam is when a con artist pretends to be in love with the intended victim and then asks for money for an emergency. Americans lost $143 million to these scams last year, and the figure is likely much higher because many victims fail to report the crime out of embarrassment. These scams are a serious problem. Not only have many victims lost their life savings, but on occasion, victims have even committed suicide.

The FBI recently reported that romance scams increased 70 percent in the past year. While anyone can be a victim, the elderly, women, and people who have been widowed are particular vulnerable.

Romance scams are not limited to the United States, but occur worldwide. Recent figures from Hong Kong show the incidents there have increased dramatically in the past year. Last October, a joint operation of Hong Kong, Malaysian, and Singaporean law enforcement arrested 52 people involved in an international online romance scam in which millions of dollars were stolen from their victims. And in August, 80 people, mostly Nigerian nationals, were charged in a 252-count indictment alleging that they operated a variety of online scams — most notably business email and romance scams — throughout the world.

In addition to international crime rings and unsavory individuals, one must beware of legitimate dating apps as well. The FTC recently sued online dating service Match Group, Inc., which owns and operates not just, but also Tinder, OK Cupid, PlentyOfFish, and other dating sites. While the FTC alleges a wide variety of improper actions by Match, the one that is most noteworthy is the allegation that Match allows users to create a free profile, but prohibits users from responding to messages without upgrading their membership to a paid subscription.

According to the FTC, when nonsubscribers received likes, emails, or instant messages from people seeking to get in touch, Match would email ads urging them to purchase a paid subscription in order to see the messages. The big problem is that, according to the FTC, millions of the contacts that generate Match’s “You caught his eye” notices came from accounts that Match had already determined were likely to be fraudulent accounts seeking to perpetrate romance scams, phishing scams, and extortion scams. According to the FTC, between 2013 and 2016, more than half of the instant messages and favorites that Match customers received came from accounts that Match already had identified as being fraudulent.

How to Protect Yourself

The most important thing to remember is to always be skeptical of anyone who quickly professes their love without ever having met you in person, and early into the relationship asks you to wire money to assist them with a wide range of phony emergencies.

Here are a few other red flags to help identify an online romance scam.

  • Someone asks you to leave the dating service and go “offline.” This is a common hallmark of a romance scam.
  • Their photo looks too professional and the person looks like a model. Often a scammer’s profile picture is stolen from a modeling website. You can check on the legitimacy of photographs by seeing if they have been used elsewhere by doing a reverse image search. If you are suspicious, ask them for additional candid photos. If the profile picture is a fake, they are unlikely to have others. You can also ask them to send a photo of themselves holding up a sign with their name on it, of a place that you designate, or holding today’s newspaper.
  • They claim to be in the military. While many real military personnel do use dating websites, they are a favorite disguise for scammers. The fact that many military personnel are overseas makes a good cover story for why it’s difficult to meet in person.  Also, the general high regard Americans have toward people serving in the military may incline a victim to be more trusting.
  • They use particular phrases. For instance, “Remember that distance or color does not matter, but love matters a lot in life” is a phrase that turns up in many romance scam emails.
  • They use bad spelling and grammar. Many of the romance scammers claim to be Americans, but are lying about who and where they are. Often, their primary language is not English.
  • They may ask you to use a webcam, but will not use one themselves.

To all the romantics out there, try to always be a bit skeptical.

Featured image: Shutterstock

Cartoons: Little Brothers

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“She went dancing with a sick friend, or something.”
Harry Mace
June 2, 1951


“I was wondering how long it would take you to notice me.”
April 21, 1951


“You must be the second shift.”
Bob Barnes
April 21, 1951
“—simply dreamy! Tonight he called and my poor heart positively swooned with ecstasy—but really!”
Les Colin
April 7, 1951


“Sis says to tell you she’s sorry but she’s developed a splitting headache. For 50 cents do you want to know what she really said?”
March 24, 1951


“The plot’s thickening!”
Mel Lazarus
March 15, 1952


“It’s the Gregory Peck of the shipping department.”
January 19, 1952


“Am I breaking the spell?”
June 9, 1951


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Cartoons: Dating Don’ts

A woman talks to her date on a couch
“According to statistics you will call on me three and two-tenths more times before you ask me to marry you.”
February 12, 1949


Man at a open door waiting for his date
“I’ll tell her you’re here, but as it is she’s already had a trying day.”
Mel Lazarus
February 10, 1951


Man talks to his date at a restaurant table.
“No filet mignon? Phew-w-w…that was close—I mean, that’s too bad…how about a nice hamburger instead…?”
Les Colin
February 11, 1950


Two children talk at a table.
“I’m taking it for granted that you’re very anxious to impress me!”
Charles Schulz
February 19, 1949


A couple look at wedding rings through a jewler's store window.
“Roger, darling, you’re turning pale!”
Joseph Zeis
February 14, 1953


A father looks at his daughter and her date though the front window.
Brad Anderson
February 16, 1952


Man playing with his girlfriend's hair
“Gee, but your hair looks lovely tonight.”
Tom Henderson
February 12, 1949


A woman introducing her friend to a potential partner.
“Mr. Haskell, this is Miss Stein—Good things come in small packages—and Miss Stein, this is Mr. Haskell—You can’t get too much of a good thing.”
February 7, 1948


Man talking to his girlfriend on a couch.
“Certainly I’m serious. Why I’d marry you tomorrow if I didn’t have an appointment with the dentist.”
Brad Anderson
February 13, 1954