Avast Academy Security Scams What Are Romance Scams and How to Avoid Them

What Are Romance Scams and How to Avoid Them

Falling for an online romance scammer can leave you with a broken heart and an empty bank account. Read on to learn how to spot the signs of a romance scam. And get Avast One, a comprehensive online privacy and security tool, to help safeguard your personal information and protect against spyware and other ways romance scammers can take advantage of you.

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Written by Elle Poole Sidell
Updated on March 23, 2024

What is a romance scam?

A romance scam (or online dating scam) is when a fraudster lures someone into a fake romantic relationship. A scammer will typically use a fake online identity to attract a victim. Once the victim shows interest, the scammer will work to build trust until finally they ask for money or have enough personal information to steal their money or identity.

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    What is catfishing?

    Catfishing is a type of romance scam in which the perpetrator uses another person’s information (like photos and personal data) as their own. Usually, catfish scams involve using fake online profiles and targeting specific victims. The motive for catfishing can be financial, revenge, personal wish fulfillment, or simply entertainment.

    Unlike romance scams, catfishing isn’t always about luring someone into a romantic relationship — sometimes, it’s for “friendship.” And while the goal of catfishing isn’t always financial, the victim usually ends up feeling hurt, embarrassed, angry, or sad.

    What are the signs of an online dating scammer?

    Dating scams involve elaborate stories and social engineering tricks designed to manipulate you into giving away your money. Common signs of an online dating scammer include a light social media profile, a desire to move fast, requests for money, and never wanting to meet up or have a video call.

    Here are red flags that likely signal you’re dealing with a romance scammer online:

    Fake dating profiles

    Scammers need to build a believable identity across many different platforms, so they keep their online profiles minimal. But, many scammer profiles follow a similar format, which can help you spot a romance or catfish scam.

    Here are some ways to spot a fake dating profile:

    • An unnaturally attractive profile photo. Imposters tend to choose a profile picture that appeals to victims. Often, they use photoshopped images of actors and models or stock images.

    • Very few photos on their profile. Romance scammers' photos usually give them away — fake dating profiles likely have only a few professional-looking photos. Many avoid pictures of people, preferring to show hobbies or animals instead.

    • Few friends. If someone contacts you on social media and has a suspiciously low number of connections, friends, or followers, that may signal that you’re interacting with a fraudster.

    • They don’t live or work near you. Romance scammers often claim to have jobs that conveniently keep them abroad for long periods.

     Few friends and a couple professional photos are common signs of a romance scammer's social media profile.

    Coming on strong

    Another common sign of a romance scam is that the relationship moves fast. Scammers want to build an emotional connection quickly to exploit you and move on. A familiar dating scam format involves declaring one’s love after only a few conversations, then making promises about marriage or moving in together.

    Another tactic is to shower you with compliments and attention—referred to as “love bombing.” Scammers often follow pre-written scripts that help them trick you into falling in love with them. If someone says things like, “You’re the best person I’ve ever met” or “Meeting you feels meant to be,” after a short time, you might be chatting with an imposter.

    Asking you to leave the site

    It’s common for fraudsters to try to lure you to another app, such as WhatsApp. This takes you away from the security processes that most dating sites and apps have in place. It also allows dating scammers to ask you for personal information, such as your primary email address or phone number.

    Taking the conversation to a different platform might not seem suspicious. But, you should always be careful about sharing your private details with anyone — especially if you’ve never met them before. Being cautious with your personal information can also help protect against identity theft and related scams.

    Avoiding video calls

    If you suspect someone is a scammer, ask them to set up a video call on Google Meet or a similar service. Just like in catfish scams, a romance scammer will avoid showing you their real face — chances are, they don’t look like their pictures.

    If you do have a call, be careful to keep yourself safe. Built-in laptop and phone cameras are prime targets for hacking, so set up your webcam security to keep romance scammers from spying or recording you without your permission.

    Asking to meet up, but never do

    Romance scammers rarely want to meet up in person, because they aren’t who they claim to be. But they’ll constantly promise to visit you to keep you hooked.

    Fraudsters always have an excuse that keeps them from showing up — a tragic circumstance or last-minute crisis. Romance scammers' stories tend to be emotional, involving illness or a severe accident to generate maximum sympathy. It's common for these stories to come with a request for money.

    Wanting money

    The biggest red flag is asking you for money before you've met them. Scamming is how many cybercriminals make their living, so no romance scam is complete without a plea for financial help. They’ll usually start out asking for small amounts before trying to get more significant amounts of money.

    They might request a short-term loan to cover a lost paycheck or say they need help paying site membership fees to keep chatting with you. Scammers may even send you money first to prove financial stability or reimburse you for something small to build trust.

    Lies or exaggerated stories

    Romance scammers tell many tales about why they need your help — they are skilled at crafting believable stories and exploiting our altruistic tendencies.

    You may be getting scammed if someone asks you to help them:

    • Buy a new device so they can work, study, or keep talking to you.

    • Pay for plane tickets or travel expenses for visits.

    • Cover the costs of a family member’s medical treatment or funeral.

    • Pay a fee to get a large inheritance.

    • Settle gambling debts.

    • Invest in a new business venture.

    The request they make usually corresponds to the fake identity they’ve created. For example, if they’re posing as a military service member, they might ask for extra cash to supplement military medical insurance.

    Using common romance scammer phrases

    Romance scammers often follow a particular script, even if it seems like their words are for you and only you. Common romance scammer phrases include:

    • “I’ll pay you back.”

    • “I can’t video call.”

    • “We’re so alike.”

    • “Trust me.”

    • “I’ve fallen for you.”

    • “I can’t wait to be with you, but…”

    • “My bank account’s frozen.”

    Any phrase along these lines can be a red flag that you’re dealing with a scammer, especially if they love-bomb you or keep avoiding video calls or meeting in person.

    How to avoid dating site scams

    To avoid dating site scams and date safely online, you should exercise caution with every online interaction you have if you haven’t met the person in real life. The best way to outsmart a romance scammer is to remain vigilant and follow helpful safety guidelines when using dating sites.

    10 tips on how to outsmart a romance scammer

    1. Stay where the conversation started. Avoid leaving a dating site or app until you’re ready or you've met in person. It’s also best to stick to reputable, well-known services to avoid ending up on a dangerous site.

    2. Don’t assume the person is safe. Romance scammers like to set up fake profiles on dating websites and apps to lure victims in.

    3. Look them up online. Verify their background by cross-checking online profiles with a quick search of their name to see what pops up.

    4. Do an image search. Use Google to run a reverse-image search of their profile picture and photos to see if their images show up somewhere else with different information.

    5. Keep your guard up. Be wary of overly complimentary messages. Run them through a search engine to see if they appear as known scripts on any romance scam sites.

    6. Take your time. Ask lots of questions and look for inconsistent answers. If someone wants to commit immediately or move too quickly, you may be dealing with a scammer.

    7. Get a second opinion. Ask a friend or family member for advice if you’re unsure about someone. A second pair of eyes can help you spot scams.

    8. Meet up in person in public or set up a video call. If someone avoids showing you their face, it might be a romance scam. Meet in a public space and avoid traveling too far to meet someone in person.

    9. Don’t trust unknown links or downloads. Scammers sometimes keep malicious links in their bios or send malware in messages. Avoid clicking suspicious links, especially if they’re irrelevant to your conversation.

    10. Don’t send money. No matter what the scammer’s story is, never send money to someone you’ve never met. This includes sharing personal information or account details (such as your Apple ID password) that could be used to commit identity theft later. Many scammers also use phishing tactics.

    Questions to ask a romance scammer

    So, how can you tell if someone is a romance scammer? Asking the right questions can help you determine whether someone is the real deal or a romance scammer looking for their next victim.

    Here’s a list of questions to ask a potential romance scammer:

    • Where did you grow up?

    • What’s your favorite restaurant in your hometown?

    • What’s your family like?

    • What was the best vacation you took as a kid?

    • What’s your middle name?

    • What school did you graduate from?

    • What’s a typical day like for you?

    • Can we have a video call later?

    • What’s your Twitter/Instagram handle?

    If anything feels off about their answers, listen to your gut. Scammers want to control the narrative — they’ll avoid sharing details that could expose their identity. Vague or generic answers to these questions are a good sign that someone’s a romance scammer.

    How romance scams work

    Romance scams tend to follow a familiar pattern.

    1. A victim unknowingly matches with a fake online dating profile.

    2. Soon, the scammer gains the victim's trust, and they make a connection.

    3. The scammer asks for money to help them with an emergency or difficult situation, promising to pay them back.

    4. Once the scammer gets the money, they vanish and never pay it back. Or, the scammer keeps asking for more money until the victim realizes what’s happening and cuts them off.

    A romance scammer usually starts a scam by gaining their victim's trust. Then, they ask for money and vanish.Romance scams start with fake online dating profiles and end up with the romance scammer disappearing after getting what they want (usually money).

    Romance scammers typically lurk on dating sites, but they may also be on social media like Facebook or Instagram as well. In this case, the scammer messages you with a compliment or other flattering pick-up line to kick off the scam. Be wary of messages on social media from people you don’t know.

    Common types of romance scams

    There are many dating scams lurking online. Each has its own script and pattern of behavior. Some of the most common types of romance scams are:

    • Sugar daddy scams: A sugar daddy scammer is someone who claims to be wealthy and looking for companionship with a younger person, offering financial favors and gifts. But before the apparent sugar daddy can give you cash, they ask you to send them money first.

    • Catfishing scams: Catfish scams happen when someone creates a fake online profile using another person's photos or personal info — or even an AI generated profile — to attract and lure a victim.

    • Inheritance scams: The scammer claims they need to get married to obtain an inheritance. On top of pressuring you to agree to marry, they’ll ask for payment for travel or your personal information to steal your identity.

    • Military scams: The scammer masquerades as a member of the military stationed overseas, which is why you cannot meet. In this scam, the scammer will likely use military jargon to convince you of their position and ask for money for military or travel-related expenses to see you.

    • Photo scams: The scammer asks you to send them intimate photos online, which they then use to blackmail you. In another twist, they can also ask you for non-intimate photos, which they use to create further fake accounts online.

    • Tech support scams: While tech support scams are typically professional in nature, scammers can use tech support as a guise to contact you and then start sweet-talking once you’re in touch.

    • Oil rig scams: Similar to the military scam tactic, the scammer says they work on an oil rig and thus have few opportunities to see you. They may ask for only a small amount of money at first, but then an emergency will happen, and they’ll need a lot of money fast.

    • Social media scams: The scammer contacts you on Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, or some other social media site. They then work on building your trust and finding out more details about you.

    • Fake dating sites: In some cases, the entire dating website might be a spoofed site, designed to lure in lonely people looking for love and get them to share sensitive information or download malware onto their devices.

    Who are the targets of online dating scams?

    What the experts say

    "Dating and romance scams, affecting approximately one in 20 of our users every month, showcase a global reach, expanding beyond Western countries to target Arab states and Asia."

    Jakub Křoustek, Malware Research Director, Avast 2023 Threat Report

    Anyone trying to date online can be a target of online dating scams, but scammers tend to target vulnerable people. Women are often viewed as more vulnerable by scammers, because there is sometimes a perceived time pressure to find someone, especially if they want kids.

    A survey conducted by a UK bank found that more than 66% of its customers who were victims were female, and the average age was 47. However, the age range of victims was 18-77, proving that the tactics used by romance scammers can work on anyone from young adults to the elderly.

    How to report a dating scammer

    If you believe you’re a victim of a romance scammer, report the scam. That will help prevent others from falling for the same tricks and help authorities root out illegal online activity.

    Here are the three steps you should take to report a dating scammer:

    1. Contact your bank. You might be able to get lost funds back. Or, you can stop a transfer from going through.

    2. File an official complaint. Report the scam to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (USA) or to ActionFraud (UK). If you shared passport info, credit card info, or any other identifying personal data with the fraudster, report the scam as identity theft.

    3. Report the scam on the dating site or app. Contact the platform you met the scammer on and share as many details as possible, including their username. Removing the profile will help keep others safe.

    Protect your identity with Avast One

    In today’s digital world, you need to protect yourself against romance scams and online threats before they happen. Avast One is an all-in-one cybersecurity solution that helps deliver comprehensive protection against scammers and other threats lurking on the internet.

    Get help safeguarding your identity and personal information with an app that protects your online activity, blocks remote webcam access and malicious links, and alerts you when your data has been compromised. Avast One provides 24/7 protection to help keep you safer online — install it free today.

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    Elle Poole Sidell