Soulmate or Cybercriminal? How to Avoid Online Dating Scammers

Love is in the air this Valentine's Day — but it's not everywhere. Many online criminals target dating sites to find unwitting accomplices for money laundering and other schemes.

Have you been chatting online with someone who contacted you through your online dating profile, a forum or via any kind of public contact information?

MORE: 9 Online Security Tips from a Former Scotland Yard Detective

Does that person now ask you to send money, or to cash checks on his or her behalf?

If so, we're sorry to say there's a good chance you're being scammed. Here are some warning signs you should look out for:

  • An unrealistically beautiful person contacts you via a dating site or other social media profile. Score, right? But be careful — criminals usually use glamorous photos to woo their victims. If the photo looks professionally done, or he or she is just way too hot, you might want to be skeptical.
  • The person might message you asking if you've talked before. You'll answer "no" and the person will apologize, but then use that as the "in" to get you to keep talking.
  • Your online romantic interest might chat with you for weeks or months before asking anything of you. He — it's usually a "he," according to the FBI — might even send you flowers or other small gifts.
  • He'll claim that he's fallen madly in love with you! According to the FBI, "profess[ing] instant feelings of love" is one of the signs that your so-called sweetheart is setting you up for a scam.
  • At this point he's probably asked to move the conversation off the dating site where you first met and directly to email, or another kind of social networking site.
  • Soon, tragedy will strike, and only you can help him! "Ultimately, it's going to happen — your new-found 'friend' is going to ask you for money," writes FBI Special Agent Darrell Foxworth on the bureau's website. Your Web beau will probably tell you some tale of hardship, or claim to be stuck in the foreign country he said he was just visiting. He'll ask for money to help alleviate his troubles, or maybe he'll just claim he wants to visit you.
  • He never visits you.
  • Your felonious fella might also ask you to cash checks in his name, or pick up and deliver packages that he claims he can't do himself because he's out of the country.

By now, especially if you haven't met this guy in person, you should be very concerned.

I'm being scammed! What should I do?

If you think one of your online correspondents is actually a criminal trying to scam you or trick you into being an unwitting accomplice, you should file a complaint with the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center.

Agent Foxworth also suggests that when looking for love online, you stick to "online dating websites with nationally known reputations." These sites have more oversight and security which helps individuals stay safer.

Make sure your online dating service has editable privacy settings. You'll probably want to edit them so that your correspondents can't see your pictures or other personal information.

Don't ever click on any links that an online stranger sends you, and by all means don't ever give out your credit-card information.

Beware of posting pictures of your children. Your adorable kids could end up as the face of the next online scam or fake email scheme.

For example, the online dating service Tinder draws from your Facebook profile to find matches. If the person flirting with you doesn't have any friends in common with you, you should ignore them.

You should also be cautious of just how much personal information you make public via sites like Twitter, Facebook or Google+. When you use these services from mobile, they sometimes automatically include a geographic location, so you might be revealing even more information than you think you are.

Comedian Jack Vale illustrated this point back in November, terrifying several strangers by telling them things they considered personal, but which had really been posted to public social media accounts. 

Email or follow her @JillScharr and Google+.  Follow us @TomsGuide, on Facebook and on Google+.

Jill Scharr is a creative writer and narrative designer in the videogame industry. She's currently Project Lead Writer at the games studio Harebrained Schemes, and has also worked at Bungie. Prior to that she worked as a Staff Writer for Tom's Guide, covering video games, online security, 3D printing and tech innovation among many subjects.