A year after my divorce, I decided that I was ready to enter the dating pool again. Since I am not an outgoing person, and with an outdated dating skill (the last man I dated was my ex-husband whom I married for 10 years – which, of course, didn't go so well), my first move was signing up at an online dating site.
I wasn't active on the dating site and was very selective in answering messages. One day a new message in my inbox caught my attention. Unlike other messages that proposed marriage outright, the man sent me a very polite message asking if I'd be interested in becoming his pen pal. I replied his message and we started chatting on Skype and Yahoo! messenger.
He claimed to be a petroleum engineer, working at an offshore oil platform in San Diego, California (later, I found out that the company that he worked for had no operation in San Diego). He said he'd been a single father for couple of years after his wife died from cancer. Two days and many hours of chatting later, he suddenly professed his love to me. He promised to visit me and proposed a marriage after he finished his new contract in U.K. Instead of happy to hear it, I became alarmed and cautious. If having a failed marriage taught me something is that when something is too good to be true, most likely it's false.
While continuing to chat with him, I began looking into his background, including tracking a phone call he made to me from a U.K. number. Red flags began to fly during my investigation. The U.K phone number that he used to call me turned out to be a satellite phone service that is commonly used for Internet scams. I also found that he had multiple Yahoo! and Skype IDs. His profile picture was also listed in many anti-scammers websites.
After two weeks of chatting, I finally cut all communications with him.
The thriving world of online dating scams
It was during my research that I came across information on romance scams or Internet dating frauds. Romance scammers are cyberspace criminals who are using psychological tricks to appeal to the victims' romantic side for financial scams. Once they gain their victims' trust and make them fall in love heads-over-heels, they will ask their victims to send money, gift and even their personal information such as bank account numbers, home address and phone numbers. In many cases, it causes significant financial loses to their victims, who have been romantically deceived to believe they are helping the love of their life with their financial problems.
I was lucky to have detected a fraud earlier before he could inflict financial loses to me. But, there are many men and women who have fallen victims to online dating scammers.
In the middle of a separation process with her husband, 48-year-old Rose, who lives in Austria, met a man with the initial JM through Facebook. After intense chatting for three months, JM, who claimed to be working for an oil company, told Rose that he had to go to Syria for an assignment. Two weeks in Syria, JM e-mailed Rose to tell her that his account had been closed due to a war in the country and asked her to help him accept a package and US$1.2 million of money. Rose initially refused it because she was aware that it was a crime but he managed to persuade her to do it.
''I had raised questions to him many times, but his answers always seemed logical,'' Rose who asked not to be identified with her real name, wrote in an e-mail to me.
''I believed him, or maybe I was blinded by love.''
JM told Rose that she would receive the package and money through a diplomat contact in a couple of days. Instead of meeting the diplomat, however, JM e-mailed Rose a couple of days later, notifying her that his diplomat contact had a problem when he was in transit in Indonesia. The diplomat needed a fee of $1,500 to avoid the package being scanned by the Indonesian custom and promised that he would arrive in Austria in two days. On the said day, the diplomat never arrived. Instead, Rose got another e-mail asking for another payment to free the package. It went on several times until she had transferred a total of $22,000.
''My emotional and psychological state was at its worst when I was making these payments.'' said Rose. ''I couldn't stop shaking when I checked my e-mail every morning that I had to take high-dose of anti-depressant. I had to be taken to hospital for alleged attempted suicide, because I had taken high-dose of anti-depressant.''
Rose realized that she had been a victim of romance scams when another woman contacted her and asked about her relationship with JM.
''The worst thing was not about losing money. I lost my self-confidence. I can't think like a normal person. It took me a year to recover.''
As online dating sites become increasingly popular, dating frauds have also begin proliferating and scammers found new ways into their victims. They can steal other people's pictures and identities even stealing video recording and making a social media account such as Facebook to convince their victims. There are many Internet dating scenario including military leave scams in which scammers are posing as a U.S. military personnel, travel scenarios and illness scenario.
To get to know how scammers work their way to win the victims’ trust, websites such as www.romancescam.com, www.stop-scammers.com, and www.male-scammers.com provide good information including pictures of latest scammers. These websites also have tools to check images, social network IDs and Internet Protocol.
Based on my experience there are some steps that we can take to help us safely surf online dating websites
1. Keep your logic
When you fall in love, the world looks wonderful. You want to keep chatting with your virtual boyfriend or girlfriend. But don't get carry away. Stay alert and look for any signs that he or she is a possible scammer.
2. Watch for the Red Flags
Pay attention for any of these signs:
- They ask you to communicate outside the dating sites immediately either through messenger, such as Yahoo Messenger or Skype, or through private email. The best way is to stay communicating through the messaging service provided by the dating site for as long as possible until you're comfortable with them.
- They claim to be U.S. citizens or from U.K. but are currently traveling abroad.
- They express their love for you fast. After a few hours of chatting sessions or intense messages exchanges, your virtual date says he/she is falling in love to you? Be alert.
- In some cases, they will ask how much you make for a living. This is to find out your financial situation.
- Scammers usually send badly written e-mail with inconsistencies here and there, as well as grammatical errors and misplaced punctuations. Sometimes, it looks like he or she translates the e-mail using Internet translation tools. This is an example of e-mail from a scammer: "Hello How Are you doing today and how is your Weekend Starting? Hope well and okay ??....Let me tell you about my pretty self and i am really looking forward to chat with you..., I'm seeking For someone special to capture my heart, body and soul, that ultimate Woman, not I'm not all of that but I am truly that white king and desire that Queen."
- They claim to be on an overseas assignment where there is little telecommunication means, such as in somewhere in an African or Middle Eastern country.
3. Your virtual beau/belle sent you an image of a strapping man showing off his six-pack abs and a dazzling smile, or a photo of her sexy self in bikini? Don’t get smitten. Use Google image to check if that’s really them. Scammers steal pictures of ordinary people to represent them. If they send stolen pictures, you can check to see if the pictures show up in anti-scammers websites. Even if their pictures don’t show up in anti-scammers websites, don’t let your guard off
4. Be alert if your virtual date calls you from a U.K number with country codes +44-70 or +234. These are satellite phone numbers popularly used by Nigerian scammers
5. Be cautious when he or she starts telling stories about some mishaps like getting robbed in foreign countries – or about sick parents or child or relatives – followed by a request to help out with money.
6. Never ever transfer money or agree to accept gift from them.
7. Don't give your personal information including social network ID, phone and mobile phone numbers, private e-mail address, home and work address or your bank account numbers.
8. When you think that you're dealing with a scammer, stop all communications. Don't try to confront or reason with him or her. If you have enough evidence, you may try to report to police.
Suprapti Walini is a scam buster who likes to perfect her ‘mie ayam’ recipe on her free time.