Online Dating Scams: How to Identify Them and Protect Yourself

Don't fall for a scam when you're looking for love online

It's hard enough having to navigate the world of online dating, but scammers have made it even harder. It turns out online dating scams are more common than you might think. They usually involve someone creating a fake dating profile with the intent of befriending someone, then scamming that person out of money or personal information. Here's what you should know about these dating site scams.

What Are Online Dating Scams?

Online dating scams typically involve creating fake profiles, then pretending to be interested in people they match with. The scammers of these fake profiles spend time messaging their matches and lead them on to make them think they want a legitimate relationship.

A conceptual illustration of online dating scams.
 Lifewire / Theresa Chiechi

Once a bond is developed, the scammer will start having a personal crises that require lots of money. Most scammers are merely trying to persuade their victims to offer their personal/financial information, send money, or buy them gifts before they meet up in person. Others craft completely false identities (known as catfishing) for the sole purpose of having deceptive relationships with certain people for as long as possible without being discovered.

How Do Online Dating Scams Work?

Online dating scams work differently depending on the type of scam that's being run.

Personal/Financial Information Scams

When a scammer picks on of their online dating matches as a victim, they'll start messaging them eagerly to get them as emotionally invested as possible in the fake online relationship. If necessary, a scammer will continue expressing their affection and even writing long love letters over a period of weeks or months to build trust and connection.

When the victim asks to meet up, the scammer will make up an excuse why they can't. If they do plan a date to meet up, the scammer will suddenly message their victim right before the date, saying that an emergency situation has come up.

As an example, the scammer might use the story of a relative who's had a bad accident or suffered a health complication. The scammer might then ask the victim to help cover expenses related to travel, health services or something else. They might be asked for a direct payment or to enter their personal and/or financial information into a fraudulent site.

A scammer looking to get your personal/financial information might not even have a real person behind it. Automated bots have been used to create fake profiles and communicate with victims using canned questions and responses.

Catfish Scams

A catfish is someone who adopts a false identity—whether stolen or crafted themselves—to use to get close to someone on an online dating site. For example, a divorced man in his 50s might pretend to be an attractive single female in her 20s in order to build an online relationship with a man he works with, after developing feelings for him at work and then looking for his dating profile.

People catfish for all sorts of reasons. Some people do it to keep tabs on their exes while others do it because they simply don't have the physical characteristics they think they need to capture the interest of a desirable mate.

Many even do it out of boredom. On Ashley Madison, a dating site for people looking to have extramarital affairs, scammers have been known to catfish people solely for entertainment purposes.

A catfish scammer will do everything they can to keep the relationship exclusively online via chat messaging. These types of online dating scams are especially common on OKCupid.

How Do the Online Dating Scammers Find Victims?

Online dating scammers find victims by using popular dating sites like OKCupid, Plenty of Fish and Ashley Madison. They can target anyone, but many are known to target older women—especially those who are divorced or widowed. These types of victims are considered to be more vulnerable and easier to gain sympathy from.

How Do I Avoid Getting Involved In This Scam?

If you're active on online dating sites, there are lots of telltale signs of a scam in progress when you're chatting with a match. Stop communicating with anyone if you notice more than a couple of the following signs:

  • They only have one or two photos on their profile.
  • Their photos are low-quality (bad lighting, grainy, taken from far away) and possible even have other people cropped out.
  • Their photos look too good to be true (because they're probably stolen).
  • Their profile has only the most basic details filled out and include very generic information.
  • They're from another country.
  • if they're not from another country, they have a story about why they can't meet up in person.
  • They come on very strong, very quickly.
  • Them seem to write in a very formal manner, call you "dear" or sign their name with a title like Mr.
  • Their spelling and grammar are slightly off.
  • They try to direct you off the dating site to another messaging app or another site.
  • They share deeply personal, emotional details about themselves and then ask for your help in some kind of way—especially by asking you for money or your personal information.
  • They make excuses why they can't have a phone or video call with you despite their strong feelings and attachment to you.
  • They have no digital footprint when you search for their name on Google or on social networks.
  • Their photos are associated with people who have different names or are in different locations when you run them through a reverse Google image search.

I'm Already a Victim. What Should I Do?

If you're the victim of an online dating scam, you can take the following measures to minimize the blow and prevent the scammer from doing it again to someone else:

  • Report the scammer's profile on the dating site. (You can also directly email if you're on OKCupid or if you're on Plenty of Fish).
  • Change your passwords for any accounts that the scammer might be able to access.
  • Notify your financial institution(s) where you have accounts that could have been or could be access by the scammer.
  • Scan your computer and/or mobile device for viruses and malware.
  • Report the scam to the authorities.

How Do I Avoid Being Targeted for Online Dating Scams?

It's impossible to avoid being targeted by an online dating scammer if you're putting yourself out there with a dating profile, no matter who you are. You might find, however, that it could worth using a paid subscription-based dating site like eHarmony or Match instead of a free one like OKCupid to minimize the potential for being targeted by a scammer.

OKCupid has been known to suffer from a large number of scammers while eHarmony makes it more difficult for scammers to sign up and has a team that actively checks suspicious profiles. Of course, using a paid dating site doesn't guarantee you won't be targeted by scammers, but it's an extra step you can take to at least help it.