Monday 22 October 2018

Don't get hooked by a catfisher

If 2018 is the year to find love online, make sure it doesn't cost you money, says Sinead Ryan

Web of confusion: Some online dating websites make it impossible to cancel your membership
Web of confusion: Some online dating websites make it impossible to cancel your membership

Did you spend Valentine's Day under the duvet or did you decide to finally meet Mr or Ms Right?

Dating websites have opened up a world of possibilities for lonely singletons but, like anything on the internet, need to be approached with caution. If you're planning on making 2018 the year you find love, then make sure it doesn't cost you money.

A warning from the European Consumer Centre about online dating scams has arrived, in not very romantic fashion. It's about dating sites which require subscription packages. While there are lots of reputable ones out there, they've found a number that keep taking your money while making it impossible to cancel your membership.

ECC Ireland examples from real customers show the problem: some signed up for a 'free' trial only to find €179 taken from their credit card after a few days; others signed up for a 'special joining offer' of €5 per month but found €232 debited after two months and no cooling-off period for cancellation (which is mandatory on EU subscription websites). Another disappointed lover had cancelled her membership, but was deducted €77.40 afterwards, and only got a refund when she complained officially to ECC Ireland.

"General queries relate to consumers not knowing how or being able to cancel their membership, forgetting to cancel the automatic renewal, and signing up to a subscription but being overcharged without notification. Some are threatened with debt collectors for breach of contract," said the organisation.

How to avoid getting scammed

Firstly, check all the terms and conditions. Is it free to sign up or is there a membership fee? How much, how often and for how long is it paid?

How do you cancel? If this information is impossible to locate easily, stay away. Most reputable dating sites offer clear instructions (see table for options).

Where is it based? If it's outside Ireland, do they have enough Irish members to make it worth your while? What do you get for your money? While many sites are free to join, they charge for looking at users' photos or 'full' profiles.

Catfishing

This is where people are scammed out of cash following a 'relationship' with someone who has set up a fake profile. Far from lonely, vulnerable victims, many are smart, educated people who simply believed the often compelling circumstances of the scammer. Studies from the FBI show more than $230 million was stolen in this way in 2016 in the US alone, and victims are often too embarrassed to complain.

How it works

The scammer creates an online presence through a dating site, with a nice (but fake) photo and family-related information (pets, kids, decent job, etc). When a victim responds, they spend weeks building trust, finding out lots about them and using it to show similarity ("You like dogs? I have two", etc).Eventually a pitch for money comes: an emergency that needs an immediate loan or treatment for a medical condition, or a fine that's due which is preventing them travelling to meet you. Once in, it's very hard to know what's real from what's not.

How to spot a catfisher

- Correspondents are reluctant to talk about themselves, but VERY interested in you. Giving pets'/children's names, dates of birth etc, opens you up to internet fraud as these are commonly used as passwords.

- Not able to talk on the phone, wants to keep everything online.

- Asking for money with desperate stories of jailed family members, passport hiccups or job losses.

Irish Independent

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