Finding a soulmate is already pretty tough, but here's another reason to keep your guard up. Facebook (FB) is launching a dating application later this year, and users are already perceiving a rise in "catfishers" -- crooks pretending to be lovelorn in an attempt to pull off a romance scam.
Michelle Amburgey, a 56-year-old who runs a holistic healing business, said she received six sketchy Facebook "friend requests" over just one recent weekend. Amburgey said she has always perceived some suspected catfishing attempts on the social media network, but never with this kind of volumn. Other users say much the same, and experts maintain that's not surprising.
"Crooks use Facebook to target vulnerable and lonely people. It seems to a fair bet that those same criminals will see a new Facebook dating service as a huge opportunity," said Danny Boice, president of Trustify, a private investigation firm.
Amburgey said she wasn't about to take the bait just to confirm that the odd "friend" requests were, indeed, from con artists, but all the warning signs were there.
"They were all older men that looked similar," Amurgey said. Each had some reason to be out of the country, and thus unable to meet in person. "One was military; one was with an oil company; one was in aerospace. None of them had much personal information on their profiles. It was just creepy."
Unfortunately, even in the best circumstances, online dating is beset with fraud -- both innocuous and criminal. Some 54 percent of online daters think someone they've been corresponding with has misrepresented themselves in some way, said Aaron Smith, associate director at the Pew Research Center.
That can be as simple as lying about your age or looks, or attempting to pretend that you're single when you're actually married. However, the most common online dating scam involves catfishers who are looking to con victims out of money.
Over the past three years, Trustify has investigated catfishing cons that cost victims upwards of $5 million. More than 85 percent of these scams started on or involved Facebook, Boice said.
Boice believes that scammers target Facebook because of the site's con-friendly demographics and the vast number of potential victims. A whopping 83 percent of adult women use the site as do 75 percent of adult men, according to SproutSocial. And unlike many other social media sites that mainly appeal to millennials, Facebook's audience skews mature -- an important factor for con artists looking for lonely people with money.
According to a recent Better Business Bureau study of romance scams, roughly half of victims who reported their age were over 50. And victims are twice as likely to be women as men.
How can you spot a catfisher? Here are five red flags.
If you strike up a relationship with someone who approached you on Facebook, take a few minutes to do a Google image search. (Call up Google images and then drag and drop the photo into the search bar.) If the name that comes up in that search is not that of your suitor -- or if it's a photo that comes up multiple times and is associated with many names, be warned. You're most likely dealing with a scammer, who has purloined attractive photographs and is using them to create a fake online identity.
Con artists are also reluctant to talk on the phone, through Facetime or meet in person. Of course, the reason for that is obvious. If the athletic Midwestern hunk you think you're corresponding with is actually a skinny Nigerian telemarketer with a heavy accent, even talking on the phone is likely to raise alarms. Meeting for coffee or video-chatting would certainly ruin the scam.
Of course a good crook will find many plausible reasons to hinder or delay that personal contact. He or she might claim to be having phone problems, be in a place with a poor cell reception or deployed in the military overseas, where the time difference could make in-person chats impractical.
But do you believe the excuses to be true? They could be for a while, but be wary. If you've been chatting with someone for many weeks or months, and you still haven't seen the person's face in anything but a picture, consider it a warning.
Time is the enemy of a crook. Whereas you might email or text message with a potential beau a few times a week, a con artist is likely to contact you multiple times a day and fall head over heels in love with you within weeks. Crooks specifically target people who they think might be lonely and then gain the victim's trust by being exceptionally good listeners and emotionally supportive.
Unfortunately, that's just part of the con -- and they're good at it, said Boice. One in five victims, who were suspicious enough to hire Trustify to check out an online love interest end up rejecting the investigator's findings, Boice said.
"We're all human, and sometimes emotions take over," he said. "A lot of victims also don't report having money stolen because they're too embarrassed to admit they've been conned."
Sharing compromising photos
Romance scammers increasingly ask victims to share compromising photos, said Boice. They may even start the process by sharing one -- or many -- with you. The scammer isn't embarrassed to do this, of course, because the photo isn't really of him/her. However, if you share a real photo, the scammer is likely to use it later to blackmail you.
"Sexploitation is the fastest-growing tactic," Boice pointed out. "If you send an intimate picture of yourself, they will blackmail you saying that if you don't do what they want, they'll post your photo on the internet."
Requests for money
The final step -- or many steps, depending on the victim's gullibility -- is a monetary appeal. The catfisher may maintain that he/she wants to visit you in person, but for some reason can't afford the cost. Maybe the bank is unfairly holding his/her funds or some emergency has economically wiped out your beau -- and he/she still needs money for, say, a medical emergency or some other unexpected expense.
If you send the money, the scammer won't disappear. He/she will ask for more to cover a new emergency, and another. Eventually, victims wise up and stop sending cash. But many send thousands of dollars before they end it. At the point when neither emotional or photographic blackmail is enough to get you to send more cash, your crook is likely to move on, leaving you poorer but wiser.