Online dating can feel like an emotional rollercoaster, complete with thrilling highs and heart-in-mouth moments.
But evidence shows that more and more scammers are derailing our search for love – and leaving victims with heartbreak, emotional trauma and financial losses.
Scammers are serious criminals, and they’ve certainly done their homework. A new generation of con artists are taking advantage of the pandemic and cryptocurrency hype to hook younger digital natives.
Dating scams are big business
Australians lost more $131 million million to romance scams in 2020, according to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC). Scams rose almost 40% in New Zealand, with the average loss ringing up to a frightening $18,667.
But the true cost of romance scams is likely to be even higher. These scams are massively underreported, according to Professor David Lacey of the not-for-profit group IDCARE. "It is a very common reaction that people just feel stupid and there is a lot of shame” he told ABC. “This is only the tip of the iceberg … people won't come forward because they think others will be critical of their behaviour."
Sadly, under-reporting only helps the criminals, and makes it hard to calculate the full scale of the problem.
How scammers ensnare their victims
Picture a dating scammer, and you might imagine a lone con artist, sitting in a room with a scheme in their head. But scams are now a multi-billion dollar global business, and they’re increasingly the work of organised criminal gangs. The person you’re messaging might be close to home – or they might be in an office in Russia or a compound in Southeast Asia, working alongside scores of well-seasoned colleagues.
Romance scams often start on a dating app, with the scammer working patiently to build a relationship with their mark. They’ll then suggest moving the conversation off the app and onto email or a messaging service, where there are fewer safeguards for users. Scammers put a lot of effort into their plans, creating fake social media profiles, using fake photos in correspondence, and even producing phony documents. Video calls may be dimly lit or blurry due to “technical issues”. Any details you share are quietly recorded – they’re vital to maintain the illusion of a love interest, and may be profitable even if the scam collapses.
Love bombing ups the ante
Scammers often contact the victim several times a day, using “love bombing” to elicit a response, and sharing made-up details to spin a plausible story. They’ve learned that patience can pay off big time, with some waiting months or even years before they ask for money. When it’s time, they use emotional blackmail to put on the pressure – a key part of socially engineered attacks.
An initial payment may be small to put their target at ease. They’ll slowly build up to larger requests - like money to pay for a flight or gifts, or help the scammer with hospital bills or legal woes. Some even blackmail their marks with compromising information or photos. Once the scammer has got everything they can from their victim, they’ll vanish.
Romance baiting and crypto are hooking a new generation
The ACCC’s figures show that only one type of scam is more profitable than romance scams: investment scams, which netted criminals $328 million. Where there’s blood in the water, sharks will follow, and criminals have combined both scams in so-called “romance baiting”.
Here scammers, having pulled their victims out of the protected space of a dating app, begin to talk investment opportunities, notably in cryptocurrency – which is hard to trace and often traded on poorly regulated exchanges. As a result of these shifts, the scammers have a new target. While baby boomers were once the main market for romance scams, the group to lose the most from romance-baiting scams was aged 18–34.
The pandemic, meanwhile, has proved another opportunity for criminals, with more people of all ages using turning to online platforms to socialise. Significant life events, such as illness, job loss or bereavement, also make people more susceptible to con artists.
How to stay safe when online dating
Romance scammers can completely shatter the confidence of those they target. So should you completely abandon any hopes of ever finding true love online? Thankfully, it’s possible to look for romance while staying safe. There’s some great advice by Scamwatch in Australia and NetSafe in New Zealand – and here are a few of our safety tips:
Listen to your instincts, and take a moment to think. Don’t get pressured into making a quick decision you’re not comfortable with.
Remember, scammers may be using a fake name, email, photo or documents. You can check images by uploading a screenshot to a search engine’s reverse image search.
Scammers’ will often tell sob stories, or appeal to your better nature, so don’t make any rash decisions.
When you move off a dating app to email or a messaging service, you lose the protection the dating app provides.
Be wary of people who always have reasons why they’re unable to meet you.
Take investment advice with a pinch of salt, and never send money, account details or personal information to someone you’ve only met online.
Even a longstanding online relationship can be fraudulent – scammers are happy playing the long game.
If in doubt, talk to someone you trust, or check Scamwatch or NetSafe
Dating scams can be brutal, so stay cautious
More and more people in Australia and New Zealand are being targeted by romance scams. They can be brutal, with victims suffering financial loss and emotional harm. And no matter how tech-savvy you may be, you’re still at risk. After all, when emotions become involved, it can be hard to see the forest for the trees.
But forewarned is forearmed. Treat online-only friends with caution, and never send money or personal details to anyone you haven’t met in person. As long as you keep safety guidelines in the back of your mind, online dating can be consequence-free fun, or even lead to true romance.