Hundreds of thousands of women and men worldwide fall victim to online romance scams every year. Reported losses in the U.S. alone top $230 million annually, although the FBI estimates that only 15 percent of such crimes are reported and the actual losses are much higher. Most of that money will never be recovered.
Here are 11 things you can do to avoid being scammed:
1. Make sure you actually know the person before accepting a friend request on Facebook.
If the person claims you have mutual friends, verify that claim. Be wary of people who show only a handful of friends on their Facebook page and few personal photos. Maybe they’re just new to social media, but recognize that their profile is giving you very little evidence of their existence.
2. Keep the conversation on the dating site.
Take it as a red flag when someone you’ve recently met on a dating site wants to leave the site’s chat feature in favor of another messaging platform. Scammers phish for victims anywhere they can. But for ease, they prefer to keep their communications all in one place. Scammers like to use apps such as WhatsApp, Kik or Viber.
3. Check their photos.
Use the free Google Image Search to see where else the photos have appeared. Click on the camera icon in the search box and then drag in or upload a picture. Google will show you where that image has been posted online. You can see if it was used by someone with a different name or if it has been reported to a scam list.
4. Investigate what they tell you about themselves.
Google them. Verify what they’ve told you. The absence of a digital footprint, in and of itself, is questionable these days. Check records: Marriages and divorces are recorded. Property ownership is public information. So are criminal records. There are several fee-based services, such as Spokeo, to help you search. Spending a little could save you a lot.
5. See if the text of their messages appears elsewhere.
Romance scammers literally read from scripts. (Scamwarners contains some popular ones.) If you’re worried you’re being scammed, try copying a message from your online friend and searching for it on Google. You may find the identical or very similar language in other links. That’s a major red flag.
6. Invite your new friend to video chat with you.
The fastest way to smoke out a scammer just may be to invite them to video chat on a platform like Skype, Facebook Messenger or FaceTime. Scammers don’t ever want to talk “live” while showing their faces. How can they when they don’t actually exist?
7. Verify where a photo was really taken.
If your suitor says he is from California but his photo was taken in a backyard in Ohio, it’s worth questioning. This site can give you a lot of information about an image, including when and where it was shot. (It doesn’t work if the relevant photo metadata was stripped away, as some social networks do.)
8. Beware of “soldiers” asking for money.
People in the armed forces can certainly have money troubles. But photos of military men are frequently stolen and used in scams. There are no circumstances ― ever ― in which a real member of the U.S. military needs to ask for money for service-related transportation, medical care or administrative fees.
9. Check where the emails come from.
Every computer, smartphone and tablet is assigned an IP address that shows you the country of assignation. Every email has a header that reveals the IP address of the device that sent it. You can learn how to find the header and analyze it here. To understand more about what you’re reading, go here. (And if you want to see if your own email has been hacked, go here.)
10. If you’ve been scammed, report it.
If you suspect you’re the victim of a romance scam, file a complaint with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center. The bureau estimates that only 15 percent of victims come forward. Think of it like this: You could be helping some other person who’s being defrauded. The FBI also urges victims to contact their banks, credit card companies and/or credit bureaus to block access to accounts, freeze accounts, dispute charges or attempt to recover lost funds.
11. Don’t send money to online strangers.
Just don’t. Tell a friend or relative about the request.