It has never been easier, at the click of a mouse or a swipe of the screen, for people whom we  may otherwise never have met, to flood our screens and give us hope for the future. Hope that we will not spend the rest of our lives alone; hope that there is that someone special out there with whom we can build a future. Or maybe someone with whom we can just have fun. We are social animals and it is instinctual for many of us to wish to share our lives with another. Hope keeps us going. 

We don’t have to glam up, we can lounge in our pyjamas, glass of wine to hand and scroll through thousands of images. We can dismiss the ones we are not attracted to, message those we are interested in, with no commitment to anything further and the excitement and anticipation of a response. However, weighing positive against negative, it has also never been easier for those with darker intentions to infiltrate the world of online dating and hook in unsuspecting singletons who they will then attempt to scam, sexually assault, rape or even kill. 

So how can we keep ourselves safe in the world of online dating? Let us first consider the scammers. We are all used to the telephone calls that tell us our laptop has issues that can be solved by clicking on a link, the emails purporting to be from a friend who has been robbed blind in a foreign country and desperately needs our assistance, the letter telling us we have won a fortune. 

We all know these scams and we can hang up the phone, delete the email, bin the letter with no collateral damage because we are thinking with our heads and we know it isn’t real. What happens when we think with our hearts is a whole different ball game, as logic and reason go out the window and we become caught up in our own fairytale. Neuroscience indicates that when we are presented with our perfect fairytale scenario, the neural pathways that inform common sense and decision making are circumnavigated and the primal gut instinct that tells us when something is wrong is repressed. 

And that is what internet dating scammers depend on. So how does this work?  How do they manage to hook us in and present as our soulmate when in reality all they are after is our money? They look at our profile and the more detail we give as to what we are looking for in a partner, the easier it is for scammers to create an ideal partner with the attributes we're seeking. 

And so, when we have taken the bait, the scam will begin. The scammer will usually ask if you can communicate off the dating site. They may claim they feel they have found the perfect partner in you and so they have no need to continue their membership to the dating site. The truth is likely to be that the longer they stay on the dating site, suspicion may be aroused of the true nature of their activity and they will be blocked and/or reported. The scammer will flatter us, lead us to believe that we have finally struck lucky. Their emails will be long, gushy, romantic. And then, slowly, the scam will start to unfold. A potential date that they will be returning to this country will be set and they may provide us with falsified evidence of a travel booking which will appear realistic ... we will start to hope and then an accident, tragedy or disaster will befall them and prevent them taking the journey. 

At first they will struggle bravely, telling us not to worry, all will be well. A week or so later, a request for money is slipped in - just a small sum to help out, to resolve their dilemma so they can return and begin their new life with you. We may ignore that nagging discomfort, the repressed gut feeling telling us “NO” and we may feel mean and so go ahead and send funds and wait and wonder .. and yet they stick around so it must be real, we tell ourselves.  And so, we send more and we don’t tell anyone, because they wouldn’t understand. And we wait and we hope for our fairytale to come true. 

And so what of those who seek to cause us physical harm? Such people may appear charming and plausible or may have a poor or negligible relationship history. They may appear lonely and vulnerable, misunderstood, always dealt a poor hand in life. They will play on the sympathy card. Often our nurturing/maternal streak will come into play. Sound familiar?   

If you are planning to meet up with anyone, always make absolutely sure you keep yourself safe. Find out as much as you can about this person before you meet and check out the facts. Arrange to meet in a public place and tell people where you are going and who you are meeting. Make sure you have your mobile with you and it is fully charged. Set up a “get me out of here” plan to use if you feel awkward or uncomfortable and arrange to call or text a friend to confirm all is well. Drive yourself there and park nearby in a well-lit area. If you don’t drive, arrange for a taxi or friend to pick you up. Never go anywhere on your own with a date for the first time, invite them to your home or go to theirs. Get to know the person well and go on several dates before you give them any personal information such as your address. 

If you find yourself feeling unsure about someone you've met online, ask yourself these questions and answer honestly:

  • Do they live in this country or abroad? If they claim to be living or working abroad and there is a significant delay in being able to meet, this is a common scam
  • Have they spun a romantic life story, peppered with tragedy that is not dissimilar to a Mills and Boon novel? There are scripts that scammers use, check and compare via online search engines
  • Have you ever communicated face to face, such as Skype or Facetime, or is it all done by email, mobile phone or text where you are not seeing their face? (Probably because it is different to the one in the photo provided)
  • Have they asked to communicate off the dating site?
  • Do they seem too good to be true?  If so, they probably are
  • Do you avoid telling your friends and family certain aspects about them, particularly requests for money, because you fear doubt may be cast on their validity? 
  • Do you feel ill? Stomach cramps, nausea, headaches, anxiety? This may be psychosomatic and/or and an outcome of ignoring the primal gut instinct that is telling you something is wrong
  • Are your sleep patterns affected and/or are you troubled by nightmares and dark thoughts?
  • Are there any inconsistencies/holes in their story, things that just don’t add up?
  • Have you checked out that they are who they say they are? Google searches, registers of births and deaths and enquiry agents can help with this.  If you can find no evidence that this person exists, then it is very likely they don’t

All the above are signs that you have been targeted by a scammer or a predator and should cease communication/contact and inform the police and fraud authorities immediately. Keep yourself safe, confide in friends and family and always listen to your gut instinct. Don’t ignore the warning signs – the devastation and fallout for those who have fallen prey to online scams is massive. You will feel foolish, ashamed, gullible. You are none of these. You are more likely to be open, kind, empathetic and emotionally intelligent. Many people who have lost money through online scams keep quiet, but find it very hard to move on because they have no outlet to process their feelings. It can be a very empowering experience to speak up, to alert others so they do not fall into the same trap and to give you the tools to move forward and live the life you deserve.

People who tell their stories to alert and protect others are often unfairly vilified, however, it should be borne in mind that this takes great courage and bravery. Is this happening to you or someone you know? This is why I have written this article and I hope it helps.