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

What Are Romance Scams and How to Avoid Them

They say love is blind, but 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 safeguard your personal info (and your money) when looking for love online.

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Written by Elle Poole Sidell
Published on May 10, 2022

Cybercriminals are masters of disguise, making even the most common online scams challenging to spot. If you’re looking for love online, read on to learn how these internet con artists operate, so you can tell if a new romance is real — or if you’re falling for a romance scammer.

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    What are romance scams?

    A romance scam (or online dating scam) is when a fraudster tricks someone into a fake romantic relationship. Typically, a scammer adopts a fake online identity to gain their victim's trust, with the goal of getting money or enough personal information to steal their identity.

    Online romance scams are a type of cybercrime. Here’s how dating cons usually work:

    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 romance scammers disappearing after getting what they want (usually money).

    There are many variations of this scam, and the “emergency stage” might include medical treatment, travel expenses, or unpaid bills. They could ask you to invest in cryptocurrency, convince you to send personal photos of yourself, or run a webcam scam.

    But the end result is always the same: the scammer wants you to send money fast — via bank transfer, prepaid debit cards, or payment gateways like PayPal.

    It’s also common for scam artists to contact victims via fake social media profiles — especially Facebook and Instagram. There are even reports of scam dating sites full of phony profiles out to mine your data and collect money through false membership fees.

    Cybercriminals are constantly changing up their scams, attempting so-called sugar daddy scams or blackmailing victims with sextortion emails. Increasingly, romance scammers are exploiting apps to reach people who aren’t actively looking for love. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) noted that Google Hangouts scams cost victims more than $640,000 in 2019 alone.

    Tech support scams are also on the rise. These scammers often pose as Microsoft (or other big tech) experts, seeking to infect your computer with scareware to trick you into giving them remote access to your device.

    Unfortunately, there's no specific scammer site or scammer app to avoid — fraudsters operate everywhere. Scammers tend to use fake names and stock photos, but they might also impersonate real people whose information they have stolen.

    What is catfishing?

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

    The difference between catfishing and other types of romance scams is that catfishers don’t usually have a monetary motive, while other romance scammers do.

    Who are the targets of online dating scams?

    Anyone can be the target of an online dating scam. However, scammers tend to target older individuals (over 50), women, or people who have recently gotten divorced or lost a partner. The ideal victim for romance scammers is someone potentially vulnerable or lonely.

    Regardless of the platform — Facebook scams, Instagram scams, or Tinder swindles — the success of a romance scam relies on a victim falling for the con. Put simply: scammers target anyone they think they can manipulate.

    Criminals research their victims extensively, combing through social media to find personal information. Scammers tailor their own profiles to be irresistible to their targets, creating a persona that shares the same interests and values.

    Even if you think you can spot a Tinder swindler from miles away, you could be the target of a dating scammer. Just in 2021, victims lost a staggering $547 million to romance scams — more than any other type of fraud — indicating that matters of the heart can cloud even the best judgment.

    As for the scammers themselves, there’s no exact profile. Many scammers claim to come from Ghana, Nigeria, and other West African countries. However, romance scams can originate anywhere in the world.

    Signs you're part of a romance scam

    Romance scammers and catfishers are expert con artists. Dating scams involve elaborate stories and social engineering tricks designed to manipulate you into giving away your money. It's easy to miss the signs of a romance scam (or any type of scam for that matter), because they’re subtly meant to build emotional attachments that overpower your common sense.

    Here are some red flags that likely signal you’re falling for 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 scam or catfish scam.

    Here are some ways to spot a fake dating profile:

    • They have an attractive profile photo. Imposters tend to choose a profile picture that appeals to victims. Often, they use photoshop images of actors and models, or stock images.

    • They have very few photos. 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.

    • They have few friends. If someone contacts you on social media and has a suspiciously low number of connections, friends, or followers, this 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. Army romance scams or oil rig scammers are pervasive, so if your potential love interest claims they are in the military or on an oil rig, proceed with caution.

    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, so they can 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 and 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 you against phone spoofing and related scams.

    Avoiding video calls

    If you suspect someone is a scammer, ask them to set up a video call on Google Hangouts or a similar service. Just like 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 can’t usually meet you 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 money online is how 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.

    The lies romance scammers tell

    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.

    How to avoid dating site scams

    Anyone can be targeted by an online romance scam, so you should know what to look out for to avoid common dating scams.

    Here are ten expert tips on how to outsmart a romance scammer so you can date safely online:

    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. Cross-check 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 overseas if you agree 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 to report a dating scammer

    If you believe you’re a victim of a romance scammer, report the scam. This will help prevent others from falling for the same tricks.

    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 communicated with 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 delivers comprehensive protection against scammers and other threats lurking on the internet.

    Safeguard your identity and personal information with a privacy tool that gives you control of your online data, blocks remote webcam access and malicious links, and alerts you when your data has been compromised. Avast One provides 24/7 protection to keep you safe online, wherever you are and whatever you’re doing — install it free today.

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    Elle Poole Sidell