Tracy Waite made a New Year’s resolution a couple of years ago. Tired of being set up by friends or dating guys she met at her job as an administrative assistant, Waite, 30, decided she’d give online dating a try.
“I’d been putting off marriage because of — whatever — college, then grad school, then not quite knowing where my college boyfriend was going,” Waite said. “When I turned 30, I realized how much I wanted to be married.”
That’s how she met Mitchell, who seemed, from his dating profile, to be Waite’s perfect match.
Both liked rock climbing, shared an affinity for German shepherds (a breed Waite grew up around) and longed to travel. A few emails quickly escalated into constant texting — though the two had never met in person or spoken on the phone.
So when Mitchell said he’d love to visit her in Florida, but he couldn’t afford a plane ticket, Waite offered to pony up half of his flight.
“And I texted, ‘Why don’t we Skype?’ and I meant it like, ‘It’s easier to plan logistics if we talk,’” Waite said. “I look back now, like, if this had been one of my friends, I would have been going, ‘What are you doing?’”
Mitchell at first claimed he wasn’t tech-savvy enough to master video chatting.
“That was my first red flag,” Waite said. “You’re trusting your love life to a computer but you’re too intimidated by free technology that’s pretty much built into your computer?”
Mitchell was what online dating experts call a “sweetheart scammer” — a person or group who uses fake online dating profiles to worm their way into the trust of people looking for love online, usually for money. While it’s a fairly rare occurrence for people to be scammed by online romantic interest, Valentine’s Day is open season for scammers, when many people join sites looking for love.
“Valentine’s Day is an opportune time for sweetheart scammers who capitalize on the season by preying on individuals looking for love,” Experian Consumer Protection vice president Michael Bruemmer said via email. “Sweetheart scammers target victims by taking time to build relationships and gain the victim’s trust.”
That’s what happened to Waite. She fell for what online dating expert Julie Spira calls “mirroring” — in which a scammer scopes out a target’s dating profile and copies some key details that will make them seem like they’re a match made in heaven.
“People are trusting until something bad happens. We’re raised to believe people are good and we want to love and be loved,” Spira said. “I tell people to use the same safety measures online as off when it comes to online dating.”
With that in mind, here are some other tips on how to spot a sweetheart scam from Spira, Experian and relationship expert Wendy Walsh:
1. Do some research
To avoid giving themselves away, sweetheart scammers often use stock photography or photos pilfered from obscure places on the Web to fill out their dating profiles.
Spira says a simple way to check someone out is to take the profile photo and do a reverse image search through Google.
Once they’ve offered their full name, go online and see if he or she is on social media.
“Get their full name and Google them deeply,” Walsh said. “Make sure they’ve got a social media presence.”
2. Search your feelings — then get some feedback
Don’t keep what’s happening to yourself. Spira says sweetheart scammers work fast, escalating false intimacy (often via text or messaging) to get to what they usually want: Money. Rather than simply basking in the newfound attention, Spira says to check your feelings with friends or family.
“They can suck you in with all the ‘Good morning, I love you’ texts. They target people who want love and maybe don’t get a lot of attention,” Spira said. “It’s good to run it by someone else so you don’t get blinded by it.”
3. Don’t be led off-site
Sweetheart scammers love to lead targets off dating sites and into private messaging so that they can’t be reported to the dating service with solid proof. Walsh and Spira both say it’s important to keep the messaging on-site to get a feel for the person before diving in.
“Don’t be afraid to use the phone because you can always block the number later. If you are nervous about it, just say so,” Walsh said. “And if they push back at all about you wanting to take precautions, cross them off your list.”
4. Meet in person — safely
Meeting in person is a common first step in online dating and should be done safely under any circumstances. Always meet a date in public and let others know where you’ll be and who with. Meeting in person is also usually a red flag for scammers because they don’t want to be seen with a potential victim.
For people living in different cities or states, Spira says it’s crucial to push for video chatting.
“Being unwilling to video chat would be cause for alarm,” Spira said. “Ask yourself: if they’ve been waiting their whole life to meet you, then why can’t they meet you?”
Walsh also advises to move the conversation offline quickly once you’ve taken other precautions like a Google and Facebook search.
“If you’ve done your visual search and they seem to be real, after three-five messages you should get on the phone with them,” Walsh said.
5. Never, ever give out money
It seems obvious, but it isn’t always. Money doesn’t always come up in the initial process of getting to know someone, but when it does it usually involves family crisis, medical emergency or work drama supposedly interfering with a paycheck, Spira said.
But other times the scammers are more sophisticated, said Walsh, pointing to a well-documented blackmail sweetheart ring that led to the suicide of a teen in Scotland in 2013. The blackmail sweethearts will meet someone online, often through a dating site, and then slowly coax the target into phone sex via Skype, which is recorded and used as leverage against the target afterward.
“Think about what you’re willing to give up to a stranger in order to be liked,” Walsh said. “Online dating has just become dating, so you should approach it the same way you would in the real world.”