In the digital age, getting a date has become as easy as clicking a button or swiping a finger across a screen. Tinder, Grindr, Bumble, Hinge, PlentyOfFish, Coffee Meets Bagel – the list of dating apps and websites goes on and on. Whereas once a person’s romantic prospects were limited to acquaintances of friends and family and perhaps a few strangers they met in public places, the proliferation of online dating platforms has expanded the range of potential partners exponentially. Consider these facts:
- According to an article in Forbes magazine, as of 2013 there were over 2,500 online dating sites in the United States with approximately 1,000 more being created every year.1 This figure does not include smartphone apps such as Tinder which has been at the forefront of a surge of new mobile dating apps since its inception in 2012.2
- A 2015 study conducted by the Pew Research Center found that 15% of American adults have used online dating sites or apps. 3 Among young people, the number is even higher. Nearly a third of individuals between the ages of 18 and 24 have dated online, an almost threefold increase in only two years.
- The same study determined that 41% of Americans know someone who has dated online.
- In 2015, The New York Times reported that every day 12 million people were matched on Tinder alone, and most people use more than one online dating service. 4
Although the ease of access and increased pool of suitors come with tremendous benefits, dating apps also bring with them incredible new dangers. The statistics above mean that you have access to thousands more potential partners than ever before, but at the same time, thousands more strangers have access to you. Once you might meet a stranger in a crowded bar or party where there were plenty of witnesses and you could assess the person’s appearance and demeanor firsthand. In a digital space where there is no one around to see or hear them, fraudsters and other criminals can easily mislead you. With at least some of your personal information available online to help you find a compatible lover, hackers and scammers can manipulate and take advantage of you. Before looking for love on the web, it is essential to understand the risks of online dating and how to protect yourself, your friends and relatives, and especially your sons and daughters.
Plenty of Phishing: Online Dating Scams
also leaves you open to cyber attacks, extortion, and emotional manipulation. In 2013, the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center received over 6,000 complaints of romance scams, also known as criminal operations in which perpetrators using fake dating profiles to woo individuals online to dupe their victims into sending them money.5 Combined, these complainants lost over $80 million.
These scams are quickly becoming more pervasive. The New York Times, citing the FBI, reported that romance fraud cost victims over $200 million in 2016.6 Furthermore, romance scammers don’t always ask for money. Many engage in a practice called “sextortion” wherein the perpetrator seduces their victim into providing nude photos or videos and then threatens to release them to friends, family, or the public if the victim does not comply with additional demands. This scam frequently targets teenagers, as young people are more willing to share explicit photos. 7 Even if you are not directly manipulated by a digital paramour, the more information you attach to your dating profile, the greater opportunity you give to criminals. In 2017, cybersecurity firm Kaspersky Lab uncovered numerous security vulnerabilities in multiple dating apps.8 Researchers were able to cross-reference information provided in dating profiles to identify users’ full names and other social media accounts, uncover additional personal information transmitted by apps with poor encryption algorithms, and even track user locations. While these reports attest that online dating puts your privacy and finances as risk, let’s consider some real-world examples to see just how bad romance scams can be:
- Between 2007 and 2014, a Nigerian man initiated online relationships with hundreds of women across the United States. Often posing as an American soldier or engineer working overseas, he romanced his victims and manipulated them into sending him nearly $2 million. At least two women were forced to file for bankruptcy while others lost their jobs or their homes.9
- Posing as a young boy, one scammer flirted online with 350 young girls, many of them minors, and secretly recorded nude videos of them. He then threatened to disseminate these videos unless his victims provided more explicit material. When apprehended by the FBI, the criminal stated that he targeted teenage girls because they were more likely to fall for his scam. 10 This is but one of numerous similar cases.
- A California man used over 30 online profiles to romance woman and fool them into installing malware on their computers. He was then able to access their files, track their keystrokes, and remotely activate their webcams. He used this access to further extort, harass, and threaten his victims. 11
- Scammers regularly steal photos from real social media accounts to use for their fake personas. In 2017, a New York doctor whose pictures had been used in fraudulent dating profiles told The Huffington Post that he receives five to ten contacts a day from victims who either accuse him of defrauding them or seek to rekindle a relationship they believed they had with him. One woman even confronted him at his office. 12
Money lost in romance scams is seldom recovered 13, and after successfully defrauding someone, many scammers will share the names of their victims with other criminals so that they can be exploited again. 14 Furthermore, the consequences of romance scams and sextortion can go beyond just monetary losses. Many victims, especially youths, report feelings of trauma extending even after the scam or sextortion was over, and several have attempted suicide.15 Other victims have been prosecuted for their unwitting roles in money laundering or drug smuggling on behalf of their internet lovers.16 The risks of being duped by an online romance are great, and clearly, it is essential to know exactly who your talking to before you make a terrible mistake.
Un-Hinged: Violence on the First Date
Even if you avoid being victimized remotely, once you move on to that first date, you face a whole new variety of dangers. Everyone has their terrible first date stories: The other person looked nothing like their picture or turned out to have a personality different from what you initially thought. The real risks are much worse. As a child, we were all told not to talk to strangers, but as adults seeking relationships online, we are all too willing to strike up conversations with people we’ve never even seen. Even worse, we are willing to meet with them in person. With a physical meeting comes potential physical danger. According to Britain’s National Crime Agency (NCA), reports of rape resulting from online dating in the UK increased by 450% between 2009 and 2014. 17 As alarming as that number is, it is only part of the picture, as the NCA states that only 17% of rapes in the UK are ever reported at all.18
It gets worse. The violent crimes taking place during first dates between people who met online aren’t just limited to rape. In a 2016 court case, attorneys stated that less than 25% of the 1,200 complaints of violence made by Match.com users between 2007 and 2009 related to rape.19 Also in 2016, British police reported that they had linked over 500 crimes including rape, murder, and sex abuse of a child, to Tinder and Grindr over the previous five years. 20 One can only imagine the total number of complaints reported about the hundreds of other online dating platforms out there. Here are a few noteworthy examples:
- A Florida man went on a successful first date with a woman he met on PlentyOfFish and took her back to his house. The next day, she arrived at his door with two armed men. The trio fatally shot the man and burglarized his home.21
- In Chicago, two criminals used Grindr to arrange meetings with six different men. The perpetrators lured their victims to a secluded area and robbed them at gunpoint. 22
- Over a four-month period, a British man deliberately infected at least ten men with HIV after communicating with them through Grindr. 23
- In September 2017, men posing as women on Tinder and PlentyOfFish arranged dates with eight other men in Omaha, Nebraska. When each victim arrived to pick up his date from her supposed residence, the perpetrators robbed him at gunpoint. 24
There are countless similar stories of rape, murder, robbery, and other crimes resulting from online dates gone wrong. Sometimes, romance scams and violent crime even intersect. Several online daters who have flown overseas to meet the scammers with whom they had been communicating have been injured, killed, or reported missing.25 The physical dangers of online dating are very real. Before you take that first step out of the digital space and into the real world, you need to be sure that you know your date as well as you think you do. You might not live to regret it.
Conman Meets Investigators: How We Can Help
Some critics argue that online dating services are not doing enough to combat criminals targeting their users. 26 In truth, given the ever-increasing numbers of people using dating sites and apps across the world, it is immensely challenging for these companies to identify every potentially dangerous account. It is up to each user to vet their romantic partners and ensure that they are trustworthy. However, emotions can cloud our judgment, and people seeking companionship are often willing to overlook suspicious behavior from someone professing to love them.27
Additionally, chatting with a potential partner online before meeting them can create feelings of intimacy very rapidly. As a result, when meeting their paramour in person, online daters are often more trusting and willing to engage in more risky behavior than they would with any other stranger. 28 These emotional complications make it imperative that you have an objective and impartial set of eyes examine your online romantic prospects before you expose your finances or your person to them. The experienced former law enforcement investigators and trained researchers at Beau Dietl & Associates (BDA) possess the knowledge, skills, and resources to find the truth about the person behind an online dating profile. Some of our services include:
- Verification of biographical information including residence history, age, and marital status
- Phone account verification
- Criminal history and sex offender registry searches
- Cybersecurity, digital forensics, and reverse image searching
- Civil litigation searches including harassment cases, domestic violence complaints, and order of protection filings
- Social media and negative news research, including identifying other social media accounts connected to dating profiles
- Financial history analysis, including signs of financial stress, such as bankruptcies or unsatisfied judgments and liens
- Employment verification
- Education verification
It’s easy to fall prey to sweet-talking scam artists especially when the culprits are using digital trickery to manipulate you. Trusting yourself to be a good judge of character when all you know about someone is their digital persona could leave you financially ruined, emotionally damaged, physically injured, or worse. Whether it’s you, your friends, your relatives, or your children, every online dater should know the hard facts about who they’re talking to. BDA can get you the information you need to make an informed decision before it’s too late.
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