With over 1,500 sites devoted to dating, the Internet is ripe for romance — and rip-offs. How do you avoid opening your heart — and your wallet — to a prince (or princess) too charming to be true? Start by taking these precautions.
Don’t pursue a long-distance relationship with a stranger online. “Staying local drastically reduces your odds of being scammed, since most scammers target victims outside their areas to avoid being caught or prosecuted,” notes Canadian journalist Risha Gotlieb.
Never reveal personal data to someone until you meet face-to-face and develop a level of trust. While it’s tempting to share every detail of your life with a person you think you could be in love with, that’s exactly what the scammer is counting on.
Pay attention to language. Many of those who commit these crimes are from West Africa and the former Soviet republics. If their command of English is fuzzy, that’s a “big red flag,” writes Elizabeth Bernstein in the Wall Street Journal.
Use search engines to check out suitors. When Bernstein met someone online who seemed too good to be true, she cut and pasted one of his e-mails into Google. Lo and behold, the exact words popped up on several websites devoted to romance scams.
Upload a potential paramour’s photo on tineye.com. According to Bernstein, this will allow you to see where on the Internet the photo has appeared. Many con artists use a photo they’ve swiped from a Facebook page.
Stick to paid online dating sites. If members shell out money to register, that means credit cards are on file, Bernstein points out. But don’t assume these sites are free of predators. They just may have fewer of them.
Be suspicious if someone wants to immediately start communicating through IM and e-mail. They may want access to your computer in order to steal information.
Ditto someone who claims to be a soldier. There are an increasing number of scams in which con artists take photos of soldiers from social networking sites and then pretend to be trustworthy members of the military. They’ll ask potential dates for money to buy special papers they claim are needed to come home or talk to family. But Christopher Grey of the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command told the Associated Press, “There is no such thing.”
Don’t open attachments from a stranger. If someone sends you a photo in an attachment and you open it, you may have unwittingly allowed a virus to infect your computer.
Don’t fall for a sob story. Jody Buell, a peer counselor with romancescams.org, says that many scammers claim to have lost a spouse, child, or parent in an accident or say they have a relative who is very ill. Another common ploy, says the FBI’s Tim Gallagher in the Wall Street Journal: Your suitor is at the airport on his way to visit you, but his credit card has been declined.
Dial up your date ASAP. According to Bernstein, someone who sounds plausible online may be an obvious fraud on the phone.
Check sites such as pigbusters.net and romancescams.org. If he has conned others, he may show up there.
Report any suspicious behavior or fraud to the Federal Trade Commission, says Grey.
Never, ever wire money to a stranger.