So, you went looking for love online, and now you’ve found “the one.” Congratulations! We assume you’ve done your due diligence. Confirmed this person’s identity. Looked at your relationship through a critical lens, at least for the sake of avoiding a romance scam.

Wait… you’ve never heard of a romance scam?

Oof. Is there any chance your virtual betrothed is not who they say they are? For example, do they stand to gain financially from your arrangement? Are there factors other than your “instant connection” playing into your unbreakable bond?

There are plenty of warning signs. It just depends on whether you know—or want to know—how to identify them. (Love can be blind, but you don’t need to be.)

The BBC recently ran a story about a British man, Roy Twiggs, who believed he was in a relationship with an American named Donna. Roy was under the impression he was heading toward marriage. He even spent £100,000 (roughly $121,000) in various payments to help Donna with “a building project in Malaysia.”

Here’s the craziest part: After Roy found out his online relationship was a scam, he quickly began a new one with “Sherry.” Those who can be fooled once can be fooled again, and social engineers like “Donna” and “Sherry” often target men and women—like Roy—who have already been swindled.

How To Spot a Romance Scam

The website SocialCatfish.com recently posted a “scammer’s playbook,” which is essentially a script for social engineering. In particular, it focuses on how Nigerian criminals have designed romance scams to victimize thousands of individuals across the world.

It’s a choose-your-own-adventure guide, with that adventure often leading to a drained bank account.

For example, the scammer might begin innocuously (“Just wanted to say hi!”) or try a more flirty or humorous greeting (“I like how your nose is in the middle of your face. That’s really cute!”). If you engage, they’ll build some rapport and carve out a romantic motive (“I hope to find someone I truly connect with … Someone who likes to laugh and have fun, but can be serious as well.”).

From there, they’re prepared for a Q&A session (“Dad died when I was a kid… My mom raised me up as a single mom, and she died in 2001.”). There are pages of these topics and responses, making it so that even non-English speakers can engage in a full conversation.

Once the scammer realizes you’re interested in taking the relationship further, they might engage in the following steps (a specific hypothetical presented by SocialCatfish.com):

  • He’ll tell you he is currently in Afghanistan for a peace-keeping mission, and he’ll be sure to ask you more personal questions to maintain control of the conversation.
  • When asked for more detail about work, he says he’s a Scottish sergeant with the Department of Defense. Oh, and he lost his wife 2 years ago. And he has a 4-year-old daughter back in Scotland. A list of personal hobbies includes swimming, listening to music, golf, etc.
  • He’s been in the camp for 18 months, but will be leaving soon. He wants to retire within a few years to have a “complete family.”
  • You might ask why he can’t call you. Simple: He’s not allowed to use his cell phone due to potential Taliban hacking. Dangerous stuff! He’ll distract you with more questions about your life.
  • “You seem like a nice woman. Note that God has a plan for everybody, OK? I really hope we can share more about ourselves honestly… I am quite interested in you now.”
  • Next time he’s online, he’ll drop more personal details (he’s a fan of Chelsea FC and ABBA). Then, he’ll turn up the charm (“I want to learn about you and what makes up your heart and soul.”)
  • If you don’t hear from him immediately, it’s because “of the nature of (his) job.”
  • The love bug hits. “I think about you every second of every day… I wish I could tell you how I really feel.”
  • To drive it home, he’ll write a short novel on his feelings and the types of dates you might go on when you are married. “Do you think we are seeking the same thing?”
  • There is a shift into more of a sexual, intimate online relationship. He had a sex dream about you. He describes it in detail!
  • Wow, he’s still going.
  • Soon, you’ve established what you think is a close, personal bond with this person. Once that happens, you’re in trouble.

Here’s what it looks like from the scammer’s perspective, per SocialCatfish.com:

  1. Contact established
  2. Fake location
  3. Frequent contact
  4. Hours spent each day
  5. Love!
  6. Fake photographs and documents (and excuses to avoid phone conversations)
  7. Money! (ex. for modeling photos, oil rig repairs, wires of cash to see their children, medical bills, etc.)

If you ever figure out their ruse, they will likely attempt to gain your pity by describing a destitute living situation. They claim to need money to support their parents or feed their siblings. It goes on and on. As SocialCatfish.com points out, you’ll be in the crosshairs of the FBI if you continue paying the scammer after you’ve diagnosed the situation.

Related: Check out this excellent rundown of romance scams by WeLiveSecurity.com. 

Take Physical Safety Precautions

Even if you know your online crush is a living, breathing person who resides near you (and is, therefore, likely not a Nigerian scammer), it’s crucial to protect yourself. First-time meetings can have tragic results.

Three years ago, we dived into the topic of online dating. If your online relationship has evolved into an opportunity to meet in person, you need to take precautions.

There are a few easy things you can do to help protect yourself, per our own Justin Bonnema:

  • Google the person’s name and reverse image search any photos available. Verification is key.
  • Voice chat multiple times before meeting. Messaging is a convenient way to get to know each other, but it’s important to hear their voice.
  • When it’s time to meet, do so during the day at a public location.
  • Inform a friend or family member when and where you are meeting, and have that person be in the area if possible.
  • Provide your own transportation.

Stay Smart Out There!

If something on the internet doesn’t feel right, there’s a good chance your intuition is correct. And if this post raised red flags in your internet relationship, don’t ignore them!

As SocialCatfish.com warns, “most victims remember a moment when they had a nagging suspicion that they ignored or didn’t follow up on.”

Don’t let that be you.

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