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Online Dating: The Dark Side

What you should be wary of when using online dating

“He said he was importing goods from the US to the UK and had his wallet stolen when he arrived and that he needed money to clear his goods with customs... It's carried on from there”

“She asked for money for air tickets and then some money to prove she had enough to live on while in UK. She was then arrested at customs before boarding the plane with a priceless icon and so was jailed. She then asked for 4000 euros for her release. I declined.”

These are just two quotes given by victims from our recent survey on online dating scams. Scammers work by setting up false profiles on online dating websites. They then contact other people registered on the site, and after a period of time cultivating a fictitious relationship and expressing their love for the person they have contacted, they attempt to extract money from their victims. In addition, scammers sometimes seek to steal the identities of other people either from dating sites or social networking sites and then use these stolen identities for the purposes of cultivating relationships with their victims.

Clues that you may be being scammed

There are several possible signs that you may be talking to a scammer on a dating site. Firstly, you may receive a response to a message you have sent very quickly (maybe with fifteen minutes). Secondly, there may be a change in the tone, language, style or grammar used in the reply you receive. This could evolve over time or just be apparent in one single message, possibly indicative that the scammers are working as a team. Thirdly, the picture on the scammer’s profile may look just too good to be true, because the scammer has stolen the photo (and maybe even the identity) from somewhere else on the Internet, possibly even a site belonging to a model. These are not definite signs that you are being scammed, but they may be clues. What really gives the game away is that after a certain time the scammer will relay some kind of sob story, which starts off as a story about something which they say annoys them, and gradually turns into a cry for help from you.

Types of scams

The sob stories relayed by the scammers typically involve requests for money, pleading desperate circumstances, such as unexpected hospital expenses resulting from sudden accidents or illnesses, or some other kind of emergency. Furthermore, scammers begin to request more and more financial assistance as the desperate nature of these circumstances apparently intensifies.

Other scams include the travel scam which involves the scammer making romantic advances to the victim, before asking them for money to travel to visit them, the phone scam, where the scammer asks the victim to call a number that will cost the victim an excessive amount of money, and the postal scam, whereby the victim is befriended online by a person from abroad who claims to live in the victim’s country but be working abroad. The scammer asks for emergency money convincing the victim that they are the only one who can help. In this case the victim may be more trusting, as they are under the illusion that the scammer will indeed return home.

In addition to the above scams, perpetrators sometimes set up bogus dating sites. On these fake sites legitimate users are persuaded to pay fees to create accounts, as well as paying for each email or message they send and receive. Furthermore, the scammers create false profiles on these bogus sites and send romantic messages to their victims in order to extract further fees.

Psychological techniques used by the scammers

One of the devious psychological compliance techniques employed by scammers is referred to as the ‘foot in the door’ tactic (Freedman & Fraser, 1966). The foot in the door technique works by asking someone to comply firstly with a small request before eventually asking them to agree to a larger one. So typically scammers will firstly ask the victim to send them a small amount of money. Once the victim has agreed to this request, the scammer will then ask for a larger amount. The foot in the door tactic predicts that we may be more likely to comply to the request for the larger amount of money only after we have agreed to sending the smaller amount first.

A further psychological technique employed by the scammer’s is explained by cognitive dissonance theory (Festinger & Carlsmith, 1959). Have ever had a salesman ask you whether you like the product they are trying to sell you? You politely reply ‘yes’. Then they have you, because their next line is that if you like it you should buy it, and if you don't then your thoughts could be in conflict or dissonant. A similar technique is employed by the dating site scammer. The scammer will have worked on establishing a strong bond with the victim, who may begin to feel that they have fallen in love with the scammer believing them to be a genuine person. If they believe they love and care for their online romantic partner (really the scammer), then they should give or loan them money in times of emergency, and doing this prevents the victim experiencing dissonant thoughts.

Are there certain people who are at risk of being scammed?

Despite the fact that online daters are by now probably aware of Internet and dating scams, people nevertheless still fall victim to online dating scams. So are there certain people who are more likely to fall victim to scams, or certain situations which are likely to precipitate dating scams?

Guadagno & Cialdini (2007) found that there are individual differences in the likelihood that people will succumb to online persuasion, and this is further complicated by the extent to which people feel empathy with the person trying to persuade them. Therefore personality may be a factor which predicts how readily individuals fall victim to Internet dating scams.

Furthermore, Whitty & Buchanan (2012) found that those more at risk of being scammed tended to be higher in romantic beliefs, and have a tendency toward idealisation of a romantic partner. High in romantic beliefs means agreeing with items on the romantic belief scale of Sprecher & Metts (1989), examples items given here.

  • Once I experience "true love," I could never experience it again, to the same degree, with another person.
  • I believe that to be truly in love is to be in love forever.
  • If I love someone, I know I can make the relationship work, despite any obstacles.

In our study we surveyed and collected data from 80 respondents. Many of those who had been scammed had been using an online dating for less than 4 weeks, and had parted with amounts of money ranging from $50 to $115,000. We were also interested in the individual difference factors which might predict the types of people likely to be scammed. We found that those who had been scammed were more likely to use disengagement based problem solving strategies. In other words they tended to prefer not to face up to problems and engage in wishful thinking. Furthermore, we found that those people who were scammed also tended to be less outgoing, less socially competent and more trusting, not picking up on the subtle techniques employed by the scammers.

A final warning

Without being too alarmist, it is a fact that online dating does have the potential to bring us closer to being the victims of crime than we think. We all have the mindset that ‘it will never happen to us’ but the evidence continually suggests that it can. For example, Whitty and Buchanan (2012) estimated that 230,000 British citizens may have fallen victim to online dating scams. The Internet is so pervasive in people’s life’s, and most of us periodically receive scam email attempts meaning that our interaction with cybercrime is never far away.

Just one final point of caution. If you start to have any doubts about someone with whom you are interacting online, be wary. Never ever send any money to someone you have only known in an online capacity. Have fun online dating, but be safe.


Festinger, J. L. & Carlsmith, J. M. (1959) Cognitive consequences of forced compliance. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 58(2), 203-210.

Freedman, J.L. & Fraser, S.C. (1966) Compliance without pressure: The foot-in-the-door technique. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 4, 195-202.

Guadagno, R. E. & Cialdini, R. B. (2007) Persuade him by email, but her in person: Online persuasion revisited. Computers in Human Behaviour, 23, 999-1015.

Sprecher, S. & Metts, S. (1989) Development of the "Romantic Beliefs Scale" and Examination of the Effects of Gender and Gender-Role Orientation. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 6,387–411.

Whitty, M. T. & Buchanan, T. (2012) The online romance scam: A serious cybercrime. Cyberpsychology, Behaviour and Social Networking, 15 (3). 181-183.

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