They come out of nowhere and sweep you off your feet. A tall, dark, and handsome man with a chiseled jaw and a smile brighter than freshly fallen snow. A woman who looks like she just stepped off the runway of a Paris fashion show. They are sweet, attentive, charming, intelligent, and always seem to know the right thing to say. Most of all, they chose YOU.
Is it all too good to be true? It could be.
In the last decade, dating apps have seen usage grow among singles of all ages looking to meet their next Miss or Mr. Right. According to a recent article in Forbes, about 30% of single adults have used a dating site or app, and nearly 70% have reported meeting someone online that has led to an exclusive, long-term relationship.
However, there is a hidden and dangerous side of dating apps that is often overlooked and underreported. Due to their immense popularity among a vast population of adults looking for love, they have become a breeding ground for exploitation by fraudsters. In the U.S. alone, romance scammers con victims out of $1.3 billion each year, and that figure only accounts for what is reported. Most victims never actually report the crime. Research by UK National Trading Standards uncovered that less than one-third of scam victims report the crime to authorities, and some figures have showed that number to be less than ten percent.
Recently, I had the opportunity to talk to romance scam victim turned victim advocate, Ayleen Charlotte, whose story was popularized in the Netflix documentary, the Tinder Swindler. Reflecting on her own experiences and those of the many victims she has helped, Ayleen provided five signs to watch out for that may indicate you are dealing with a romance scammer.
Sign #1: Declaring their love for you almost immediately
If your online interest is telling you they love you within a few days or weeks, before you have even met in person, the alarm bells should be ringing. Romance scammers engage in what is often referred to as “love bombing” – an overly intense display of love, affection, and praise. It is meant to overwhelm you. In extreme cases, they may attempt to emotionally isolate you from your friends and family in order to manipulate you easier. They want you to fall in love hard and fast to set you up for the ultimate ask – a request to send them money.
Sign #2: Taking an excessive interest in your personal life
Asking questions about your romantic interest is normal at the start of any relationship. But scammers often take an excessive interest – asking a lot of questions about you but never revealing much about themselves. While it may appear flattering, this is intentional. Scammers don’t care about you as a person. They are only looking to get you to expose your vulnerabilities so they can exploit them later for financial gain.
Sign #3: Claiming to be from your city, state, or country, but rarely available to meet in person
You will find that romance scammers often list an occupation that lends to excessive travel or a legitimate excuse to be overseas. They claim to be in the military, a government official, or one of the most common – working on an oil rig. This provides them a valid excuse for why they must be away for long periods of time, and more importantly, a reason to ask for money to get an airline ticket home to see you.
Sign #4: Making plans to meet you in person, and then cancelling at the very last minute
You have been talking with your love interest for weeks, or even months, and the time has finally come for you to meet in person. They will be home soon, and the many plans you have discussed to take a romantic getaway are finally going to come true. Except they cancel at the last minute, providing an elaborate excuse why they cannot meet you in person. This is one of the oldest tricks in the scammer’s playbook designed to keep you hooked (and sending them money) for as long as possible.
Sign #5: Requesting money almost immediately
This is the biggest red flag of all that you may be dealing with a romance scammer: an urgent request for money. They will have an over-the-top reason why they need money right away (e.g. a sick relative is about to die). In Charlotte’s case, her scammer claimed to have a lot of enemies and that her life was at risk as well. To stay safe, he needed to go undetected, and this is why he needed Charlotte’s help. He even sent pictures of himself beat up and bloody and told her that there was an attack on his life. Some also request the money, claiming it is for a lucrative investment, which they will return to you with a huge profit very soon. And they never ask you to send money to a bank account - they will ask you to send gift cards, Bitcoin transfers, or a payment via Western Union.
Who is Vulnerable to Romance Scams?
Everyone who is single and looking for love is vulnerable and a potential target. However, a study by Javelin Strategy and Research, a leading analyst firm, indicates that romance scam victims are more likely to be male by a nearly three to one margin. This could be for several reasons, but I will leave that to the psychology professionals to dissect.
Scammers aren’t just lurking on dating apps; they are rampant on social media sites as well. These love bandits do extensive research to find their targets, and once the hook is in, they work hard to gain a victim’s trust very fast. Falling for a romance scam is a dangerous game that leaves long-term emotional and financial scars. Being vigilant of the romance scammer’s playbook and identifying the warning signs early on is imperative – before they break both your heart and your wallet.