How Likely Are You to Be Scammed in Online Dating?

New research on who gets scammed on dating sites.

Posted Oct 02, 2017

Panuwat phimpha/Shutterstock
Source: Panuwat phimpha/Shutterstock

There are many benefits to online dating which include access to a large number of possible dates, on some sites a potential matching system which might align people with compatible dates, and the possibility of communicating with these dates before meeting them in person (Finkel, Eastwick, Karney, Reis, & Sprecher, 2012).  However, there are also risks attached to online dating, not least the possibility of being scammed.  Scammers operate by constructing false profiles on dating sites, cultivating relationships with potential victims, before attempting to extract money from them.  Furthermore, scammers sometimes steal the identities of other people who have internet or social networking profiles, and use these stolen identities in their fake dating profiles in order to appear more attractive or appealing. 

How Scams Work

Typically, after developing a fallacious relationship with a potential victim, the scammer relays a sob story to them which will involve a request for money.  The reason given for the monetary request is usually some kind of emergency for example they have to pay an unexpected hospital bill arising from a sudden illness or accident.  As the scam progresses the nature of the emergency becomes more desperate and more and more money is requested from the victim.  Stories exist of victims parting with their life savings and even remortgaging their houses to obtain funds to send to the scammer. 

Who Gets Scammed?

The scenario described above sounds so incredible that doubtless we would say that we would never fall for such a ploy.  Yet some people do.  Therefore the question is whether psychology can help in predicting the types of people most likely to fall victim to dating scams. 

A recent study by Monica Whitty, examined several psychological characteristics which she suggested might be important in predicting whether someone may be likely to fall victim to being scammed.  These were:

  • Impulsivity
  • Locus of Control (Whether a person believes that they have control over their environment or whether they believe in fate. 
  • Trust in Others
  • Trustworthiness
  • Kindness
  • Greed
  • Addictive Personality Traits

In addition to the psychological characteristics described above, Whitty also looked at whether age, gender educational level and knowledge of cybersecurity, would predict an individual’s likelihood of being scammed. 

The participants in this study were 11,780 people from the UK who completed an online survey.  10,723 were not victims of scams, 728 were one-off victims, with 329 being repeat victims.  From these there were 200 who had been scammed via a romance scam.  Age was categorized as young 18-34 years, middle age 35-54 years, and older which was 55 years and over. 

Psychological Factors Affecting the Likelihood of Being Scammed

Firstly, Whitty found that the respondents who scored high on impulsivity were more likely to be the victims of scams.  One of the tactics employed by the scammer is the creation of a sense of urgency to respond to their request (e.g. relaying the story of an emergency requiring rapid and urgent help).  The victim has no time to carefully consider the scammer’s monetary request or their own response, and this is therefore the reason as to why impulsive individuals are more likely to fall victim to this tactic. 

Secondly, respondents who scored high on trust in others were more likely to be the victims of dating scams.  This really speaks for itself in that trusting and possibly even gullible people are more likely to be victims of dating scams. 

Thirdly, the research revealed that individuals who have an addictive personality are more likely to be the victims of romance scams. Whitty suggests that people get involved in scams because they become addicted to the scam itself.  Those who score highly on measures of addiction find it more difficult to ‘walk away’ from the scammer and the scam once it has started, and surprisingly sometimes even when they are informed by the authorities that they have been scammed.  The explanation is that the scam victims are similar to gamblers in that they get caught up in the process, perceiving it as a ‘near win’ situation. 

It would seem reasonable to assume that kind people may be more likely to want to help people in distress and be more likely to be scammed. Yet contrary to this prediction, the results of this study found that less kind people are more likely to be scam victims. It could be that less kind individuals have fewer social networks (presumably as a result of being less kind), and therefore focus more of their time on the fake relationship created by scammers and thus fall victim. 

In addition to the promise of a great relationship, the victims of romance scams are often promised wealth. However, in the current study, a person’s level of greed or their perception of their own trustworthiness did not predict their susceptibility to being scammed.  Similarly, there was no difference of likelihood of being scammed between people with an internal or external locus of control.

Other Factors Predicting Likelihood of Being Scammed

In addition to the psychological factors outlined above, this study also found that age predicted vulnerability to being scammed, with middle aged people more likely to be the victims of scamming than younger or older people. More specifically, 21% of victims were younger, (aged 18-34), 63% middle aged (aged 35-54) with 16% being older (aged 55 or over). Furthermore, women were more likely to be scammed than men (60% compared to 40%). 

In terms of educational level, it would have seemed likely that less educated people might have fallen victim to scams compared to better educated people.  In fact, the opposite was the case with better educated people more likely to be scammed.  Previous research by Fisher, Lea and Evans (2013) suggested that overconfidence may cause people to be more vulnerable and therefore it may be the case that better educated individuals are confident that they can identify a scam whereas in reality they cannot.  Finally, there was no difference between those who reported they had high knowledge of cybersecurity compared to those who reported they knew little.  However, knowledge of cybersecurity was measured with only one item, which may not have been sensitive enough to detect any real difference in this.

Finally ...

Overall then it seems that impulsive and trusting people with addictive personalities are more likely to become victims of scams.  Furthermore, it is females who are middle aged who are also likely to be more vulnerable.  The findings from this research provide insight into the types of people likely to become scam victims, and have implications for scam awareness and scam prevention.  However, it doesn’t mean that if you don’t fit the descriptions above you are safe.  We might all be vulnerable, so the final word is that we should all be vigilant. 

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Fischer, P., Lea, S. E. G., & Evans, K. M. (2013) ‘Why do individuals respond to fraudulent scam communications and lose money? The psychological determinants of scam compliance.  Journal of Applied Social Psychology. 43. 2060–2072.

Finkel, E. J.,Eastwick, P. W., Karney, B. R., Reis, H. T., and Sprecher, S. (2012), ‘Online Dating: A Critical Analysis From the Perspective of Psychological Science’ Psychological Science in the  Public Interest 13 (1) 3 –66.

Whitty, M. T. (2017) ‘Do you Love me?  Psychological Characteristics of Romance Scam Victims’ Cyberpsychology, Behaviour and Social Networking.