Sh'reen Morrison had been on an online dating site for only a few weeks before she realized that something was seriously wrong with the man who had been actively pursuing her by text message and email. They'd hit it off right away, and he said he lived just outside of Phoenix, which seemed relatively proximate to a woman in remote Yuma, Ariz.
But meeting in person was always a problem. First, he was traveling through India with his daughter. Then the daughter became ill and had to be hospitalized.
When Morrison suggested that her suitor put his daughter on a plane to get better medical attention at home -- and even offered to pick the girl up at the airport -- a new crisis struck. By then, Morrison knew she was dealing with a scammer.
"The story was getting more and more bizarre," she says. "But I hung on and kept communicating because I wanted to see the end of the movie."
The ending came as no surprise to experts on romance scams. Morrison's erstwhile Romeo claimed he needed her to "lend" him $18,000 to deal with one of the many crises he had fabricated. "He said he was going to pay me back double," she laughs.
Though the amounts and details of the scam vary from victim to victim, when it comes to romance scams, the con is almost always the same: The crook wants to get a besotted victim to wire money or provide access to a credit card.
If the victim doesn't figure out the con after the first request for cash, the crook will keep milking the relationship for as much as he or she can get. When the victim gets wise, the con artist gets scarce.
To be sure, these scams aren't new. But the increasing popularity of online dating gives them the perfect conditions to proliferate. There are no statistics saying just how common scammers are on dating sites. But individuals who frequent them say scams are pervasive.
Indeed, many sites warn their customers to beware. Match.com, for instance, includes a disclaimer at the bottom of every onsite email between members, warning not to send money or provide credit card information to anyone you've met on the site.
"I probably hear from five scammers a night," says Marko Budgyk, a Los Angeles financier who has frequented several online dating sites over the past 10 years. "After a while, it becomes really easy to spot them."
Here are six red flags to help detect and sidestep romance scams.
Let's leave the site: Online dating sites have the ability to monitor and boot members who exhibit problematic behavior or are perpetrating scams, so con artists want to quickly move their victims elsewhere. Beth Kipps, who has experimented with several dating sites, says the men who have attempted to con her almost always have a reason why they shouldn't continue to communicate via Match.com or eHarmony. Most commonly, the excuse is "My membership on this site is almost up. How about if we text or communicate though our personal phone/email?"
Moving off-site before launching a scam reduces the chance that you'll report the crook to the relevant site. That's important to the con artist, who'll want to troll the site again for future victims when done with you. Do your fellow legitimate members a favor and be sure to report abusers.
May-December. Budgyk, 56, doesn't suffer for a lack of confidence, but he also knows something is amiss when a model half his age just can't get enough of him. "When some 25-year-old girl is telling you that she's in love with you, you have to wonder why," he says. "You see this communication and think, 'Oh my gosh, I must be more attractive than I thought!' No you're not. Be realistic. If a 25-year-old model is contacting a 50-year-old man, there's something wrong."
Scammers look for vulnerable populations -- women and men in their 50s and 60s who are divorced or widowed and may feel rejected or past their prime. They're also likely to target people with weight problems and those recovering from illnesses.
Why? Any of these issues might make you a bit more anxious about your ability to find love and potentially more receptive to the con. The crook will then lavish you with attention and flattery. The idea is to get you to suspend good sense and become enamored with someone you've known online for just a few weeks and have never met in person.
Trappings of wealth. Kipps has decided that another tip-off is photographs that show all the trappings of wealth -- exotic cars, mansions, pictures in romantic foreign settings. Of course, real people sometimes have nice things and go to great places, but these visual cues are key to scammers who want to get your guard down for their future bid for cash.
By fabricating an illusion of their own wealth, scammers may be able to convince you that you're simply "loaning" them money that, for some weird reason, they can't immediately access.
Where do the scammers get photos of themselves in these exotic locations and with these costly products? They don't. They troll other sites and steal other people's photos.
Budgyk knows this from experience: A Nigerian scammer lifted photos from Budgyk's profile. He found out when he discovered his photos were on a romance scam site warning about the same Nigerian crook who had stolen his photos.
Morrison says she realizes that photos posted by her one-time suitor were also fakes. She now examines photos of everyone who contacts her to see if she can match them in Google images to a real person. She's often surprised at what she finds. "One guy stole photos of a male model," she says.
Linguistic anomalies: Bad grammar, strange word choices and linguistic gymnastics are other signs of a foreign scammer, experts say. When reading an email, ask yourself whether the sentence structure strikes you as strange. If it does, ask lots of questions. Where are you from? Where were you educated?
If a profile indicates your match has a college degree, but he or she can't string a sentence together, you have reason to be suspicious.
Geographic challenge. It's rare for a scammer to meet you in person. The reasons are varied but practical. Many are operating out of foreign countries, despite profiles saying they live nearby. Their photographs are also likely of someone else, and that would be tough to explain in person.
Commonly, when the victim proposes an in-person meeting, they'll come up with some excuse for why it can't happen: They're traveling, stationed overseas or have some long-distance emergency.
Kipps says her worst experience was with a man who claimed to be a widower raising his five-year-old daughter. Just as they were about to meet, he had a sudden emergency and had to fly to the Philippines, where his daughter was supposedly staying with a relative.
Disaster strikes. Immediately after Kipps' date left for Manila, she started getting text messages about the emergency that sent him overseas. He was at the hospital. His daughter had been in an accident, he said. Distraught, he said he left his wallet in the cab. He needed money for a hotel. Could she help?
When she declined, the messages got more desperate. He sent heart-wrenching photos of a young girl, who appeared to be his daughter's age, hooked to a raft of medical monitors.
Uncertain of whether she should believe the man, Kipps Googled "photos of sick children." And of course, the photographs she'd been getting via text message were public images posted online. Says Kipps: "What kind of horrible person does something like that?"
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