By Ria Fulton
More and more Americans are turning to the Internet to find their Valentine—and seniors are no different. Computer users over the age of 50 are the fastest growing group of subscribers for online dating, and a 2011 study funded by eHarmony and conducted by the Oxford Internet Institute found that 36 percent of men and women aged 40 to 70 found their current partner online. But while plenty of seniors are finding the perfect match, there can also be big risks involved in looking for Mr. or Ms. Right online. What if that person you’re chatting with turns out to be Mr. Scam or Ms. Fraud instead?
That’s exactly what happened to a 66-year-old San Jose woman in January, who was conned out of over $500,000 by a Nigerian scammer on the popular dating site ChristianMingle.com. According to The San Francisco Chronicle, the man posed as a British citizen stranded at sea on a Scottish oil rig, and targeted the woman by calling her, texting her, and sending flowers before requesting a large business loan.
The scheme was elaborate—the scammer used bogus pictures and even created a fake website for his non-existent business. The victim gave him money from her retirement account and even refinanced her home before suspecting fraud and contacting the authorities. The scammer’s identity, meanwhile, is still unknown, although his email and Skype accounts have been traced to Nigeria.
Unfortunately, cases like this are anything but rare. The Internet Crime Complaint Center, a joint project of the FBI, the National White Collar Crime Center, and the Bureau of Justice Assistance, estimates that 29% of people targeted in “romance scams” were women over the age of 50—and that same group accounted for more than 61% of the financial losses of all romance scams, to the tune of $34 million.
Dating sites with a religious focus, like ChristianMingle.com or JDate.com,
or those aimed at seniors like Ourtime.com, may feel “safer” for seniors than some of their counterparts. But those sites still can’t guarantee that the person you’re talking to is the real deal. Scammers know that seniors are more likely to have considerable financial assets, and also figure that seniors might be less likely to suspect fraud or to report the fraud once it’s occurred—all factors that make seniors a major scam target.
Online dating can be a great experience if you take the proper precautions. So how can you protect your heart—and your wallet—online? The Washington State Office of the Attorney General offers these tips:
Protect your anonymity.
Don’t disclose your full name, phone number, where you work, or detailed location information in your profile or in early communications with potential dates.
Use the email system provided by the dating website rather than your personal email address to maintain your privacy.
Watch your profile pictures.
Make sure your profile pictures do not contain identifying information such as local landmarks or company logos.
Read profiles with skepticism, ask questions, and note inconsistencies.
You can even use Google’s “search by image” tool at www.google.com/imghp to determine if a profile picture has been stolen and is being used by
Don’t stand for bullying.
If a person harasses you, report it and block that person from contacting you again.
When you decide to meet, create a safe environment by meeting in a public place during a busy time of day. Make sure someone knows where you’re going.
Don’t fall for sob stories.
If a date asks you for a loan or any financial information, no matter how sad their story, it is virtually always a scam and you should report it immediately.