By John Breyault, Vice President of Public Policy, Telecommunications and Fraud
The explosive growth of online dating sites in recent years has certainly been a boon to many singles turned off by the traditional bar scene. In fact, according to research commissioned by Match.com, 1 in 5 single people have dated someone they met on an online dating site.
What goes less reported is that many consumers go to these sites looking for love and only to find scam artists waiting to separate them from their money. In a typical romance scam, the con artist reaches out to a prospective victim via an online dating site. If the victim responds to these initial outreaches, the relationship generally “blossoms” with amazing speed. The scammer will very quickly begin professing love for the victim in an effort to create trust. Ultimately, the scammer will begin to ask for money to cover a range of fictional expenses such as hospital bills, travel expenses, lawyer’s fees or other reasons. The demands for money tend to escalate over time. Victims of these scams reported an average loss of more than $7,000 to NCL in 2010, with some of the largest losses reaching into six figures.
The online dating industry is aware of the problem and is taking steps to address the issue. It was with this goal in mind, that NCL was invited to participate in a panel discussion about romance scams at the iDate2011 conference in Miami. The event, which brings together many of the top companies in the online dating industry, was an opportunity for us to share our knowledge about these scams from our Fraud Center.
Joining me on the panel was Gene Fishel, the Senior Assistant Attorney General and Chief of the Computer Crimes Division with the Virginia Attorney General’s office and Ron Plesco, CEO of the National Cyber-Forensics & Training Alliance.
My presentation discussed the latest trends in romance scams, drawn from our 2010 complaint data. Our recommendations included urging the online dating industry to improve information sharing to spot suspicious users more quickly, reaching out to victims of romance scams and to liaison more closely with law enforcement to help track down these con artists.
Gene Fishel’s presentation focused on the role that the Virginia Attorney General’s office has played in tracking down these scammers and the benefit of private sector cooperation with the Attorney General’s office. What was especially chilling about Gene’s presentation was his description of criminal registered as sex offenders using online dating sites to meet victims, generally despite court orders to stay off social networking sites or the Internet altogether.
Ron Plesco gave a fascinating presentation about the incredibly sophisticated ways that cyber-criminals, particularly members of organized crime syndicates, are targeting online dating sites. These groups, according to Plesco, harvest user data and sell it on international black markets in stolen data. This data can then be used to commit financial fraud or worse.
In the world of online dating, consumers should always be on their guard. In particular, be wary of the following “red flags”:
- Requests to communicate via e-mail or instant messaging (instead of via online dating sites’ messaging services) unusually soon after first making contact
- Immediate or instant feelings of love
- The “match” claiming to be from the U.S. but currently overseas
- Plans to visit but travel is halted by an unexpected or tragic event
- Requests to wire money to the “match”
- Refusal of the person you meet to communicate by phone
- Persistent errors in spelling of common words or grammar
- Requests to ship merchandise to a third party
For more information on online dating scams, check out the FTC’s Online Dating Scams tip sheet. Consumers who feel they’ve been approached by or are victims of a romance scam should report it via NCL’s online fraud complaint form at www.fraud.org.