How pervasive is online dating fraud? Dating industry consultant Mark Brooks, founder of Online Personals Watch, estimates that only perhaps 1 percent of members on well-established paid online dating sites are scammers. On newer sites, however, the number may be much higher, as scammers can flood recently launched sites with thousands of real-looking but fake profiles. "Scammers are good for short-term business because they boost activity," he says, "but the site's reputation suffers, so new sites have to go through this learning curve."
The dating industry deploys a host of techniques to fend off fraud, from automated defenses that spot suspicious language patterns or block accounts associated with IP addresses from high-alert countries such as Nigeria and Ghana to more labor-intensive policing by human teams. A Match.com spokesperson says that profiles are immediately taken down if flagged by other members, and the company's customer care team reviews every new profile and constantly combs the site for inappropriate content. Rivals such as eHarmony offer similar protections, as does AARP's dating service provider, HowAboutWe — which, like Match.com, is a member of the Match Group of sites owned by the media company IAC/InterActiveCorp. Among the more sophisticated verification methods, Brooks says, is the principle of social authentication — in which profile information is matched with data from the user's social media accounts to better verify that the person is real.
AARP's Fraud Watch Network is encouraging online dating services to take steps to better keep their customers safe. In June 2015, the group will issue a call to action aimed at the dating industry, urging all companies to adopt more stringent verification and fraud-fighting technologies. You can learn more about this effort and also sign this online petition. For now, it's largely up to dating service users to protect themselves: Don't assume you're safe just because you trust the company or brand. Before you jump into the online-dating scene, make sure you …
1. Read the terms
Take the time to understand the online dating service's terms of service. Typically, the company is not responsible for vetting users' identities, or for what those users say or do. Other language explicitly limits the company's legal liability.
2. Know the don'ts
When you first sign up, most dating services will go through the basics of scam avoidance: Don't share personal information such as your address or date of birth, be vigilant about users who ask you to leave the site and use personal email addresses, and never send money — especially overseas. University of Leicester psychologist Monica Whitty emphasizes a more fundamental rule: "If they're not prepared to meet in person within one month, walk away."
3. Be your own detective
While FTC fraud expert Steven Baker acknowledges the dating industry's fraud control efforts, "we'd like them to do more," he says. He wants the services to be more proactive about contacting likely victims: After a user has been flagged as a potential scammer, the site could reach out to any members that user had contacted, disrupting the con at its infancy. Industry critics cite other methods to weed out fraudsters, such as screening for images or text repeated in multiple profiles or blocking accounts from IP addresses that don't match the profile's listed location. Since the dating service might not be doing that for you, do it yourself: Run image searches of profile photos at images.google.com or TinEye.com, and paste suspicious text into search engines to see if it's been used elsewhere.
4. Protect your face
The other victims of romance scams: men and women whose images have been stolen to create fake profiles. "Anyone who has images posted anywhere on the Internet can be a photo victim," says Barbara Sluppick of Romancescams.org. Some oft-used images might be linked to hundreds of scam attempts. To entice women, scammers often use photos of men in the military, while attractive young women, particularly models and adult-film personalities, are used to attract men. Model Yuliana Avalos and actress Melissa Harrington were associated with a $1.5 billion lawsuit against Match.com over the thousands of fake profiles with their photos that appear on the site; the suit was dismissed in 2014.
5. Report it
If you encounter a scammer, immediately report the user to both the dating service and the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center.
This article originally appeared in the June/July 2015 issue of AARP The Magazine.
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