Facing solitude during the coronavirus pandemic caused many singles to turn to internet dating websites. But many hopefuls learned the hard way that internet appearances — and intentions — can be deceiving.
In fact, online romance scams cost the lovelorn a record $304 million in 2020, according to the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC’s Consumer Sentinel Database shows that over the past three years, people have reported losing more money to dating scammers than any other type of fraud.
Older adults have been the most susceptible to falling for an internet dating scam.
According to a new FTC report, adults 60 and older reported losing about $139 million to romance scams in 2020, up from $84 million that seniors lost to these types of scams in 2019.
The total financial blow is likely much higher considering the reported figure is only based on what victims formally submitted to law enforcement agencies.
New York matchmaker Maureen Tara Nelson has heard every type of internet dating horror story: Their date didn’t look like their profile picture; they claimed to be rich when they were unemployed; they said they were single, but they were married; or worse: they scammed them out of money.
“You have to look out for the liars,” she said. “People lie all the time.”
Nelson noted that the coronavirus pandemic absolutely exacerbated the number of internet dating scams because more people turned to their digital devices to look for love while stuck at home.
Before the pandemic, she said people were more apt to procrastinate finding love. But when lockdowns forced people into isolation, she said every internet dating platform began to see a spike in usage.
“During COVID, people really want to meet someone so badly,” she said.
As love-seekers hit dating sites, so did fraudsters, eager to rip off those yearning for a connection.
“There are so many horrific stories,” she said. “I had a man that came in and said, ‘I used to be a millionaire,” until his run-in with a scammer.
A widower came to Nelson for help after he sent about $500,000 to a woman he fell in love with online who allegedly lived overseas.
He told Nelson that he fell deeply in love with this woman he met online and wanted to bring her to America. So, he began sending her money. One problem — she didn’t really exist, and the scammer nearly wiped out his life savings before he realized he was being duped.
“She got him to feel that he loved her,” Nelson said. “He came to me saying, ‘How stupid am I? I believed she loved me. I loved her.’ He loved someone who was not a real person.”
Another client sought Nelson’s services for her mother who was completely catfished — a term used to describe someone who sets up a fake online dating profile to trick people looking for love.
The daughter became concerned after her mother asked for money to redecorate her house. Luckily, the daughter intervened before releasing the funds, which were actually going to go directly to the scammer and not an interior designer.
“It was a total catfish story,” Nelson said. “Her mother fell for everything.”
According to the FTC, scammers come up with sob stories like needing money for surgery, for a loved one, or to pay off debts, and they typically request the funds via money wires or gift cards.
Nelson said the one positive regarding online dating to come out of the pandemic is the rise of video dates over FaceTime, Skype, or Zoom.
While bars, restaurants, and coffee shops — typical first date spots — were shut down, Nelson said she encouraged clients to meet over video chat.
“We had to think of different, unique ways to have an internet date,” she said. “And when you have a FaceTime date, a lot of people feel more comfortable.”
One of the biggest perks of a video date: seeing firsthand how a person lives.
“You are going to see them hopefully in their home,” she said. “You also get to see their mannerisms and personalities.”
One of her clients said she was turned off by her virtual date after she saw his messy house. Immediately, Nelson said her client knew that she was not going to be compatible with this potential suitor long term.
On another video date, a client told Nelson the man she was “meeting” rushed off the phone as soon as his front door swung open — because his wife had come home early.
While a FaceTime date can give some insight into a potential partner’s life, Nelson cautioned that daters still have to be wary of red flags if they do meet up in person.
One of her clients said she was tricked on a date by a man who she thought was a doctor because he wore scrubs to their dinner.
He pulled the “I left my wallet in the car” trick and she picked up the tab assuming he would make it up to her the next time. After all, he was a doctor.
It wasn’t until a waitress followed her into the bathroom and informed her that this man isn’t a doctor and that he comes to the restaurant every week with a different date and pulls the same stunt to score a free meal.
Nelson said she learned the hard way that you don’t have to be a doctor to wear scrubs.
But one of the worst internet dating stories Nelson heard over the pandemic came from a young working professional who allowed a guy she met online to stay with her while he was in between jobs and moving.
The woman told Nelson that he had a “story for everything” and his reasons for not working and not having a place to live all seemed plausible. She ultimately had to break her lease, which cost her thousands of dollars, and move out after she gave him a key and couldn’t get him to leave.
“As bad as these stories are, there’s always light at the end of the tunnel,” she said. “You can’t be afraid to ask for help.”
While Nelson’s matchmaking services come with a vigorous screening process, she warned that internet dating does not.
She offers the following tips that singles looking for love can follow to help protect themselves against internet dating scams:
Know that many online dating profiles are fake. Diligently look at profiles and see if photos are real and not just stock images someone took off of Google images.
Look for red flags. There are professional scammers who will convince both men and women to send them money and avoid meeting up in person. Nelson said they have their stories down pat and often claim they live abroad, want to come to America, but have no money to do so. Other scammers will claim they are working on an oil rig, in the military, or as a doctor with an international organization as a way to keep their conversations strictly over the internet.
Conduct some sort of background check, even if it is a simple search using a person’s full name and birthday. Nelson said don’t be afraid to say to someone you want to run a background check before meeting in person. If you explain you are doing it to protect yourself, she said the other person will understand if they are legitimate. If the person resists, it could be a sign that they are married, hiding something, or not actually interested in finding a committed partner.
Look out for married people. Nelson said it is not uncommon for married people to look for casual flings on internet dating sites. If a person doesn’t want to meet up near their home, doesn’t want to give you their phone number, doesn’t want to video chat, or says they are unavailable at night, she said that could be a red flag that they are married.