How to spot the online 'lonely hearts' that are really only after your money
Valentine's Day has come and gone but if a search for love online proved unfruitful that day, you could be one of the lucky ones - fraudsters are increasingly targeting those who are looking for love online, with almost one in three online daters being asked for money or financial help, according to recent research by the anti-virus software firm Norton.
In Britain, hundreds of thousands of online daters have been ripped off by such scams, and some people have lost tens of thousands of euro.
Fraudsters set themselves up as members of online dating websites, creating realistic profiles made up of stolen photographs and fake details. The fraudster then targets another genuine online dater, asking them for money shortly after they have won their trust.
"Scammers are naturally attracted to large online communities and the surge in online dating amongst millennials makes these sites a prime target," said Nick Shaw, general manager of Norton EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa). "In the online world, as with anything in life, people aren't always what they seem and while there are many legitimate daters on these sites, you still don't fully know what kinds of people you're dealing with."
The overwhelming desire of lonely people to find a partner can leave them particularly open to being scammed.
"With romance fraud, fraudsters invest a huge amount of time and effort into building a relationship with someone, knowing that they can potentially reap a bigger reward the more they build trust and intimacy," said Tony Neate, CEO of GetSafeOnline. "In many cases, looking at the relationship through rose-tinted glasses can prevent victims noticing the signs of fraud."
Romance fraudsters manipulate two of mankind's more attractive traits - empathy and compassion, according to James Treacy, managing director of Business Pro, which set up the anti-fraud agency, the Irish Fraud Bureau a few years ago.
"Always remember to temper your good nature, natural empathy and compassion for someone who claims to be in need of help with plenty of realism," said Mr Treacy.
The easiest way to avoid a romance fraudster is to spot one from the start - so what warning signs should you look out for?
"It is highly unlikely that anyone legitimate would ask for any kind of financial assistance," said Mr Neate. "Never be pressured into giving personal details like home addresses or card numbers."
Be wary of anyone offering you ways to get rich quick - or inviting you to put your money into investment schemes. The same applies to an individual you meet online who requests money for charity or for help with a family illness. Watch out for profiles that immediately tug on heart strings such as ill relatives or family emergencies.
Excuses not to meet up in person are another danger sign.
"My advice to online daters is to meet the person behind the profile within the first few weeks to ensure it's an authentic profile," said Professor Monica Whitty, an academic at the University of Leicester in Britain who has researched online dating scams. "If that person makes excuses not to meet, then move on."
Of course, before agreeing to meet someone, research their profile first. Try searching for social media profiles (such as Linkedln) or do a web search to see if there are any records or images of the person online. Let family members and friends know where you're going, when you'll be home - and keep them regularly updated. It can often be difficult to spot a scammer from an online profile. Should you have any suspicions, get a second opinion from family or friends.
Conversations that seem a bit off - or where the person isn't answering your questions directly - are another red flag.
Many fake profiles are run by programs called bots, according to Norton.
These bots are designed to entice you to click on a link that will lead to porn, webcam sites, malware - or to capture your credit card information.
Be wary of invitations to click on a link or join a webcam session for an 'adult' conversation. An individual can record the webcam session and use it to blackmail you.
Watch out too for behaviour which tries to rush a relationship.
"Be cautious if the relationship progresses more quickly than you are used to," advised George Kidd of the Online Dating Association in Britain. "Sudden declarations of love may sound nice but other motives could be there. Use common sense and don't be afraid to speak to a friend to get a second opinion. If the person seems vague, tries to take the conversation offline, has an unlikely story or acts inappropriately, then proceed with caution."
Sunday Indo Business