Lentis/Online Dating Scams

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Online dating scams (also referred to as internet romance scams) are attempts to defraud users of online dating websites through fictitious personal profiles. Perpetrators of these scams often misrepresent themselves as single individuals looking for a romantic or sexual relationship to develop an emotional bond with the victim, which is then used to extort money or goods from the victim. These scams frequently originate overseas, particularly West Africa or Eastern Europe, although scammers have been known to operate inside the United States as well[1].

Internet romance scams are a growing and under-reported problem. Over 9,000 Americans reported internet romance scams in 2011, at a cost of over $50 million. Some researchers estimate as many as 230,000 UK citizens have fallen victim to these crimes, losing a total of $60 billion [2][3]. Scammers tend to target elderly, divorced, or widowed individuals, especially women, who report more than two-thirds of all scams [4]. Online relationships initiated by scammers frequently exhibit similar characteristics, such as rapidly intensifying romantic language, unrealistically attractive photographs, and extremely bad luck when travelling (such as plane crashes, crooked hotel operators, and detention at customs)[5].



Internet romance scams often take place through online dating services, such as match.com and OKCupid. Sites catering to international dating have also been singled out as popular scam venues. Scammers, hiding behind fictitious profiles, initiate a relationship with an individual seeking companionship, marriage, or a sexual relationship. These relationships develop quickly and intensely. One character commonly described by victims is an attractive, wealthy American citizen living abroad, frequently in Nigeria or another west African country. Once a potential victim has built a strong emotional bond with his or her would-be lover, the scammer will begin to solicit funds in order to deal with a series of increasingly unfortunate situation. These complications may be family-related (a close family member is very sick and needs financial assistance) or travel-related (a hotel manager has seized my passport, or immigration officials require bribes). Payments are often made through wire transfer, although victims have been asked to send physical goods, like electronics, as well[6]. Once a payment has been made, the scammer will stumble into more and more tragic situations, requiring more and more money from the victim, until the victim terminates the relationship or the scammer ceases contact.

This model is but one common scam with endless variations. These operations may be individual, amateur efforts, or executed by larger crime syndicates based overseas [7]. Entrenched criminal organizations have greater resources to set up more believable scams, like those featuring the invented "John Scofield," a well-connected, handsome character living in Florida; Scofield's profile was used simultaneously in multiple scams around the country[8].


Age and gender demographics of American scam targets, 2011. Older women are disproportionately affected.

All demographics are at risk for online dating scams. However, scams disproportionately target older women: 68% of complaints submitted in 2011 were targeted at women, and 82% of those affected women over 40 years of age. Women who have been divorced, disabled, or widowed are also prime targets. This data is likely under-reported due to victims' embarrassment and the psychological impact of the crimes[9]. It is also believed that these scams are designed such that victims self-select; the nature of the scams decreases victim density and selects only the most vulnerable victims[10].


Falsified passport used in an actual internet romance scam. The deception is obvious to observers, but often ignored by willing victims[11].

In one case published by the U.S. State Department, a male dating-service user has courted a potential companion for several months before being asked for money to cover her bizarre expenses[12]:

"My dad he's from us and my mum is from Spain. So I’m a honest and trustworthy lady. And I don’t like people cheating. Right now I’m in West Africa. There was a guy that I met when I’m still at home in Florida (two month ago) so the guy told me that he love me. And I told him that I love him too. So he traveled to West Africa...But I don’t really know that the guy doesn’t love me. We have fun and know much more about each other together in the same room. And the next day I can't find this guy any more he ran away with all my money and my goods. All I need now…$500 US dollars."

In this case, the male suitor began to ask probing questions about his online companion's access to credit, her exact location, and her family resources. After several unconvincing answers (the scammer claims her country is West Africa and that her entire family perished recently in a plane crash), the suitor terminates the relationship, avoiding fraud. This situation illustrates several common characteristics of scams. The individual:

  • experiences very bad luck (robbery, tragic accident)
  • has no other access to money
  • is an American stranded abroad
  • promises to live with the victim once in America
  • expresses impatience when challenged

Other notable examples include those with actual photographs used to deceive potential victims. These images often appear to be modified or copied out of glamour magazines; unrealistically attractive or flawless people are often indicators of some degree of fraud[13].

Psychological Influences[edit]

As an outsider, many online romance scams seem obvious. Fifty-two percent of online-using adults have heard of these deceptions[14]. One out of fifty adults online personally know a victim[14]. In popular culture, like the television show Flight of the Conchords, people who fall for online scams are portrayed as naive, oblivious, or out-of-date[15]. Despite this, people continue to be duped by these scams. Many psychological effects, including self-deception, optimism bias, and the valence effect, cause people to fall for these scams.


Self-deception is when a person rationalizes away or denies opposing evidence or logic. In online romance scams, victims overlook noticeable red flags for personal reasons. One victim who exhibited this effect is Dori Hartley. After surviving cancer, Dori Hartley was in a five year online relationship with a scammer pretending to be a cancer patient named "Dimitri." Throughout the relationship, "Dimitri" refused to show Dori a picture of his face, claiming he felt embarrassed by how he looked with cancer[14]. To an outside observer, this action seems suspicious and characteristic of an online dating scam. However, Dori overlooked her lover's suspect claim:

"I was a cancer survivor myself, so I knew how important it was to be loved and supported during this impossibly heart-breaking time."[14]

Dori's recent psychological trauma caused her to rationalize this suspicious activity for a shot at love with someone who also experienced the same pain and suffering she did. Victims project their own perceptions on suspicious behavior because they desperately want their online relationship to succeed. People who recently experienced hardship, such as divorcees and widowers, tend to fall in this category.

Optimism Bias[edit]

Optimism bias is when someone feels less at risk for a negative outcome than the average person. Many victims believe that because so many people use online dating sites, their chances of coming across a romance scammer are fairly slim. Currently, Match.com has over 1.8 million paying subscribers[16]. eHarmony has over 20 million registered users[17]. One out of five single Americans have gone on a date with someone they met online[18]. The optimism bias causes legitimate users of online dating websites to underestimate their own risk of encountering an online romance scam. However, all demographics are still at risk for online dating scams, and more people on dating websites can lead to more scammers looking to exploit them.

Valence Effect[edit]

The valence effect is when people tend to overestimate the probability of a positive event. Victims of online romance scams are often influenced by the perceived success of online dating websites. In the United States, seventeen percent of couples married between 2008 and 2010 met through an online dating service[18]. On average, 542 Americans matched on eHarmony are married every day[17]. Victims of online romance scams believe that if all these people are finding the love of their lives online, they will be able to, too. Online dating has been featured in popular culture. Popular films, such as You've Got Mail and Must Love Dogs, feature protagonists who meet online, fall in love, and live happily ever after. These movies perpetuate unrealistic, pristine expectations for online relationships and may shape victims' assumptions and cause them to overlook suspicious online behavior in exchange for chance at love.

Related Scams[edit]

Confidence Scams[edit]

Online Dating Scams use internet technology to augment scamming practices that have existed for hundreds of years. The evolution of technology in scams can be analyzed through three case-studies: those committed by William Thompson, H.H. Holmes, and Oral Roberts. William Thompson lived in New York City in the 1840s. Thompson built personal relationships with strangers on the street and asked to borrow their valuable pocket-watches before disappearing. Through this practice, Thompson was dubbed by the media as the first "Confidence Man[19]." His success was based on his attractiveness, personal relations skills, and his ability to identify potential victims. H.H. Holmes took advantage of the technology showcased at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair to become one of the first documented American serial killers. Holmes preyed on visitors to the fair, offering them a place to stay or companionship before taking their lives. Although he exploited contemporary technology to reach a high concentration of victims, Holmes relied on his own ability to attract people in person to deceive his victims. Oral Roberts was a televangelist who took advantage of television technology to find a large and varied group of donors for his controversial fundraising tactics[20]. Like Holmes, Roberts' use of contemporary technology helped him find a wide set of victims. However, television does not provide anonymity; Roberts' success still rested on his attractiveness and personal relations skills. The internet dating scam can be viewed as the next step in this evolution - online scammers attract their victims through similar tactics, but they are able to take advantage of the internet's wide audience and anonymity.

Advance Fee Frauds[edit]

Another prominent type of scam is the Advance Fee Fraud. In this class of scam, the scammer tells the victim that they need help moving or securing a large sum of money, and in exchange for assistance the victim can keep a percentage of the money. The victim, in order to accept the deal, gives the scammer their bank account information[21]. Famous examples of Advance Fee Frauds include Nigerian Prince Scams and Spanish Prisoner Scams. Much like dating scams and Confidence Scams, Advance Fee Frauds started as early as 1827[22] and have grown in prevalance and complexity along with relevant technologies.


Internet romance scams are a serious social problem. Thousands of victims are affected every year. Money, material possessions, and emotional security can all be lost as a result of these scams. While the internet has provided anonymity and widespread access to potential victims, similar practices of scamming have been around for centuries. These internet scams are more effective because the internet increases anonymity and allows attackers to pursue multiple victims simultaneously. Other than these, there are various work-at-home scams as well which are meant to dupe the "investors" looking for quick profits of their hard earned cash. One must take care to avoid the work at home online scams as well. Other than these there are numerous applications that can help, for example, by listing who has visited your Facebook profile.

Take care and keep your eyes and ears open to avoid being taken for a ride.


  1. ABC news report. Retrieved from: http://abcnews.go.com/Business/colorado-mother-daugther-indicted-nigerian-internet-romance-scam/story?id=16629203
  2. Whitty, M. T. and Buchanan, T. "The internet romance scam: a serious problem." Cyberpsychology, behavior, and social networking, 15(3), July 2012. Retrieved from: http://online.liebertpub.com/doi/pdf/10.1089/cyber.2011.0352
  3. Internet Crime Compliant Center: 2011 Internet Crime Report. Retrieved from: http://www.ic3.gov/media/annualreport/2011_IC3Report.pdf
  4. Internet Crime Compliant Center: 2011 Internet Crime Report. Retrieved from: http://www.ic3.gov/media/annualreport/2011_IC3Report.pdf
  5. State Department briefing on internet romance scams: http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/financial_scams/financial_scams_4554.html
  6. 20/20 segment, June 2011: http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/We_Find_Them/online-dating-nightmare-ny-woman-scammed-thousands-soldier/story?id=13898664
  7. Brenoff, A. "Online Dating Scams: Buyers Beware." Retrieved from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/14/online-dating-scams_n_1263837.html#slide=679870
  8. "Debbie Best: Online Dating Scammer Made Off With Her Money And Heart." Retrieved from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/25/debbie-best-online-dating-scam_n_1959219.html
  9. The British Psychological Society. "Victims of online dating scams feel doubly traumatised." Retrieved from: http://www.alphagalileo.org/ViewItem.aspx?ItemId=119442&CultureCode=en
  10. Herley, C. "Why Do Nigerian Scammers Say They are From Nigeria?" Retrieved from: http://research.microsoft.com/pubs/167713/WhyFromNigeria.pdf
  11. State Department warning regarding online dating scams: http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/financial_scams/financial_scams_4554.html
  12. State Department warning regarding online dating scams: http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/financial_scams/financial_scams_4554.html
  13. ScamWatch, an Australian government resource: http://www.scamwatch.gov.au/content/index.phtml/tag/datingromancescams
  14. a b c d Hartley, D (2011, Sept. 26). "Perfect stranger: how I fell victim to online 'romance fraud'." The Huffington Post. Retrieved from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dori-hartley/internet-romance-the-mons_b_981068.html
  15. Flight of the Conchords television show. Season 2, Episode 2. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JAH43TZYGt4
  16. Gelles, D (2011, Sept. 26). "Inside match.com." FT Magazine. Retrieved from: http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/2/f31cae04-b8ca-11e0-8206-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2EyW0ugyV
  17. a b "About eHarmony." eHarmony. Retrieved from: http://www.eharmony.com/about/eharmony/
  18. a b Match.com and Chadwick Martin Bailey (2010). Match.com and Chadwick Martin Bailey 2009 - 2010 Studies: Recent Trends: Online Dating [Press Release]. Retrieved from cp.match.com/cppp/media/CMB_Study.pdf
  19. New-York Herald, July 8, 1849. Retrieved from: http://chnm.gmu.edu/lostmuseum/lm/328/
  20. Biema, D.V. "Oral Roberts to the Rescue?" Retrieved from: http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1677098,00.html
  21. US Securities and Exchange Comission Definition of "Advanced Fee Fraud Schemes." Retrieved from: http://www.sec.gov/answers/nigeria.htm
  22. Description of a Spanish Prisoner Scam from "Memoirs of Vidocq: principal agent of the French police until 1827" Retrieved from: http://books.google.com/books?id=uGQoAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA58&dq=vidocq+jerusalem+letter#v=onepage&q&f=false

Further reading[edit]