En español | Looking online for love? Be careful. After meeting suitors on Match.com, a well-known dating site, victims across the U.S. have lost upward of hundreds of thousands of dollars to these criminals who pose as perfect partners.
When online dating descends into a big fat con, the emotional and financial wallop can be devastating, and older Americans are among those who have paid the price. It happens, as a top federal prosecutor in Oklahoma put it, to people looking for love, companionship and “a partner with whom to share their life.”
Consider the Utah woman, 81, who said she paid about $26 to subscribe to Match.com earlier this year only to meet a con man. Urging her off the dating site to message each other through Google Hangouts and WhatsApp, he pursued her relentlessly. The 21st century Svengali hid behind an attractive photo and said he was a 64-year-old native of Copenhagen, Denmark, educated in the U.S. and the owner of a construction firm and a four-bedroom home in Oklahoma. He called her “sweetheart,” “babe,” and the “love of my life.” Saying he was retiring in November, he promised they’d marry and began addressing her as “my wife.”
Sweetness reeks of stench
“I’ve never had a man talk to me the way he did, and tell me all this garbage. That’s all it was, garbage,” the woman, who asked not to be identified by name, tells AARP. She never met the pseudo-suitor in person.
The woman alerted the AARP Fraud Watch Network helpline, 877-908-3360, before speaking in an interview. She described being so under the man’s spell that she painted her toenails in a color he liked before a planned get-together in Las Vegas, which never happened.
When the man told her that he was helping build a skyscraper in Venezuela, he suddenly said he needed money for taxes and other issues, including a stolen wallet. In June, she made two wire transfers totaling $130,000 to an associate of his. That was 5,000 times more than the $26 she recalled paying Match.com.
“He was very cunning and very smart,” she says, “and when he figured out that I had enough confidence in him, he played me to the absolute end.”
Deep in grief
The Utah woman said she was lonely when she went on Match.com nearly two years after her husband died. Afterward a female friend became her roommate, which helped with the loneliness, but earlier this year the friend succumbed to cancer. Since being ripped off, the 81-year-old woman has this advice: To find a friend, visit a senior center, join a church group or attend singles’ events.
It was Trent Shores, then-U.S. attorney in Tulsa, Oklahoma, who said that online daters who became victims were looking for love and companionship. He spoke in 2019 announcing an indictment against seven men, most Nigerian citizens living in the U.S., who laundered money from romance frauds with losses of at least $2.5 million. Some of the money was from retirement nest eggs, authorities said.
In that case, three victims — all in their 50s and 60s — first met the bad actors on Match.com. A woman in Centreville, Ohio, ended up losing $760,000; a woman in Pryor, Oklahoma, $547,000; and a woman in Seminole, Florida, $259,000, authorities said. All were fed bogus stories to coerce them to send money, authorities said.
“Everyone is vulnerable to phone and internet scams, but seeing a romance scam and money-laundering conspiracy that resulted in the exploitation of elder Americans is just shameful,” Shores said in his announcement.
A growing problem
Overall losses to romance frauds hit a record-shattering $304 million last year, the Federal Trade Commission said. Criminal cases from coast to coast reflect the horror stories behind that statistic. In New Jersey last year, federal authorities announced a $6 million case centered on romance frauds. One victim met a man on Match.com who purported to buy and sell jewels for a living. The woman sent nearly $115,000 to his conspirators — and to give even more, embezzled $4 million from her employer, The Star-Ledger reported.
Match.com declined to comment on any of the cases in this story.
Meantime, complaints from romance-scam victims have spiked at AARP’s fraud helpline. Reports of victims who gave away funds — or sensitive information — stood at 664 in 2020, an average of 55 reports a month. Through mid-September this year, the complaints rose to 798, for a monthly average of 93. “Scammers are really zeroing in on and taking advantage of those who might be lonely and seeking companionship,” says AARP’s Mark Fetterhoff, an adviser in fraud victim support.
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How to protect yourself
According to the FBI, con artists prowl most all dating and social media sites. The bureau makes two key points:
- If you suspect an online relationship is a scam, stop all contact immediately.
- People using dating sites and apps should not send money to others with whom they have communicated only online or by phone.
The FBI takes complaints about these and other cybercrimes at its Internet Crime Complaint Center. Here’s more of its guidance:
- Be careful what you post online. Scammers can use details from social media and dating sites to understand and target you.
- Research a person’s photo and profile online. Check if the image, name or details have been used elsewhere. [You can search photos via images.google.com.]·
- If you meet a prospective partner, go slowly and ask lots of questions.
- Beware if the individual seems too perfect — or quickly asks you to leave a dating service or social media site to communicate directly.
- Beware if the individual attempts to isolate you from friends and family or requests inappropriate photos or financial data that could be used to extort you.
- Beware if the individual promises to meet in person but always has an excuse about why he or she can’t. If you haven’t met the person after a few months, you have good reason to be suspicious.
- If someone you met online needs your bank account information to deposit money, they are most likely using your account for other thefts and frauds.
Match.com Declines AARP Questions
AARP was turned down when it asked for an interview with the Match Group Inc. about romance frauds originating on one of its dating platforms, Match.com. “We unfortunately don’t have anyone available for an interview on this,” spokesperson Vidhya Murugesan said.
The company also declined to answer emailed questions for this story. The Dallas-based Match Group owns several dating sites including Match.com, Tinder, OkCupid, Hinge, Pairs, PlentyOfFish and OurTime.
The company boasts dating sites in more 40 languages for users around the world. Last year it reported $128.6 million in profit on $2.39 billion in revenue.
Here’s how the company, on its website, addresses safety: “While relatively few of the hundreds of millions of people that have used our products have been harmed by bad actors, we believe that any incident of misconduct or criminal behavior is one too many.”
Among AARP’s questions that the company did not answer:
- How many people have been defrauded over the years?
- Is Match.com doing background checks on all who post profiles?
- How many times this year has Match.com, and its affiliated sites, barred fraudsters from setting up profiles? How often this year has it removed suspicious accounts?
The company, on its website, says it bans and blocks fraudulent behavior with “sophisticated” technology to patrol for fraud. It says it reviews member profiles to block internet protocol (IP) addresses from high-alert countries, to identify stolen credit-card numbers and to detect suspicious language in profiles.
Don’t send money to someone you’ve met on its dating platforms — and report anybody who asks, the company advises.
Katherine Skiba covers scams and fraud for AARP. Previously she was a reporter with the Chicago Tribune, U.S. News & World Report, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. She was a recipient of Harvard University's Nieman Fellowship and is the author of the book, Sister in the Band of Brothers: Embedded with the 101st Airborne in Iraq.