How to avoid online dating scams

Many lonely people try to find love online but unfortunately this opens them to the risk of being scammed by someone who takes advantage of their loneliness. Moneybags journalist Jessica Wood looks at online dating scams and provides tips on how to protect yourself if you seek love on the web.

In a recent incident, a women from Durban was conned out of almost R700 000 by a man she met online. She was made to believe that it was true love and didn’t hesitate when he asked for money.  “The dating scam is an extension of the commonly known 419 scam which is an advance fee fraud,” says Glenda Paul, a director of IRS Forensic Investigations.

In similar case of fraud, seven people were charged with 77 counts of fraud for an online dating scam that had 21 alleged victims. The accused created false online profiles and then targeted victims that were vulnerable, asking them for money for “emergencies” once they had gained the trust of the victims.

The scam

The problem with online dating and matchmaking sites in South Africa is that they are not regulated. Bonita Grobbelaar, a dating and relationship coach and owner of online matchmaking website MatchVIP reveals that whereas other countries such as the United States regulate these websites, in South Africa there is no such regulation.

According to Grobbelaar, most victims of online dating scams are women. These victims are chosen because they are vulnerable and eager to form a connection with someone. In many cases, Grobbelaar says that the victims were married and are now divorced or widowed. They want to recreate the closeness that they had with their partner with someone else.

“It is a phenomenon I see often where people who have been in a committed relationship for a prolonged period expect to create that same sense of belonging and closeness with a total stranger too soon. Without realising that this is a steady and slow process where they need to in fact get to know the person, their values, their family situation, [and] their financial situation over a period of time. We rely on what people tell us, when instead we should rely on their actions, what they do and how they treat their family and other responsibilities in life,” says Grobbelaar.

Capitan Paul Ramaloko, a spokesperson for the Hawks was recently quoted in an article saying that these online scams are worth millions of Rands, and there is an increase in the number of scammers as social media becomes more popular.

Reporting the crime

Paul explains that as with any crime in South Africa, the first point of call would be to report the scam at your local police station. You will need to provide all correspondence related to the scam to the authorities to assist in the investigation. This would include inter alia proof of any payments, banking information of the scammer and proof of communication.

“Once you have a criminal case reference number, I would suggest that you contact the online dating service provider and advise them that you were scammed and provide them with the police case reference. The online dating service provider, may not provide the victim with any information because of privacy laws but it does make them aware of the crime and they may collect vital information from their server while waiting to be subpoenaed for information by the SAPS,” says Paul.

Sizwe Snail ka Mtuze, Snail Attorneys at Law Inc. director, agrees that when an online scam has been committed, the victim needs to report the crime to the SAPS cyber-crime unit. He points out that the South African law has made provisions for combating cyber-crime with the Electronic Communications Transactions (ECT) Act 25 of 2002 contains provisions for cyber-crimes in sections 86 to 89.

In addition to these sections, section 90 of the ECT Act includes extra-territorial jurisdiction, which states in which instances the South African courts have jurisdiction.

Snail revealed that if the offence is committed in South Africa the South African courts have jurisdiction. The South African courts also have jurisdiction if the crime is committed on a South African plane or ship. If the offence begins elsewhere but the victim is in South Africa, or if the conman is in South Africa and the victim is in another country, the fact that the [crime] started in South Africa and there is proof thereof, it means that the person committing the crime can be tried in South Africa.

“[The ECT Act] has a relatively wide arm as long as there is something linking the action or the person to South Africa,” says Snail.

Paul adds: “Victims who are unsure of whether they had been scammed or embarrassed by being in such a situation have contacted our offices for advice and assistance in reporting the matter, via our webpage: www.irsa.co.za. IRS assists in proving criminal elements of misrepresentations which are tantamount to fraud together with the victim’s application for financial restitution.”

How to protect yourself online

Grobbelaar and Paul say there are a number of things you can do to avoid being a victim of such a scam:

  1. Don’t give people who you have met online your personal email, work email or home or work addresses or numbers. Stick with exchanging cell numbers so that you can block that number if you need to.
  2. Do not give them access to your social media profiles or become “friends” before you really know them well enough. You don’t want them to have access to your friends and family unless you know you can trust them.
  3. If it’s too good to be true it probably is. Someone who confesses their undying love to you before having met you is not realistic.
  4. If he is drop dead gorgeous, contacted you first and seems too good to be true, then he probably is! These men use model pictures to lure their victims.  In reality, you could be talking to a woman.
  5. If their profile states that age or income don’t matter to them and they make a point of letting you know that finding a ‘meaningful connection’ or ‘true love’ is more important be cautious.
  6. Scammers send generic letters that are passed on to hundreds of other would-be victims. Direct questions tend to be avoided.
  7. It’s not legit if he starts talking about money. If at any stage he starts telling you about his money problems, requests that you pay his membership fee or wants money so that he can come visit you – remove him from your online account.  These emails will become more desperate and intense.
  8. If you are only provided with a personal email address and no other contact details then this should raise another red flag. His email address could also change during the course of your interaction.
  9. These scammers usually want to move off the website and onto your personal account soon. Don’t let them do that.
  10. Research profile pictures. – “I would suggest that your readers try Google images to see if the picture has been used before online. Scammers have been known to use images they find online,” says Paul.
  11. ”If a person is not prepared to share information about themselves or shies away from such questions – I would deem that a red flag,” adds Paul.
  12. Another red flag would be someone that asks to cash money orders, cheques or to use your bank account to process promised payments of cash because they are having difficulty doing it themselves.
  13. Be cautious if they claim to have purchased you something but need you to pay to process the gift through customs.
  14. Someone who professes an emotional connection but refuses to meet or shies away from such requests is probably up to something else.

 

According to the South African Centre for Information Security, when taking part in online dating it is important to use your head when making decisions about what information you provide. It states that some scammers even go so far as to make wedding plans with their victims. This ensures that the scammer has the victims trust, and may also allow them to get greater amounts of money from the victim.

Grobbelaar says: “The best way to make sure that you are really in contact with who they say they are is to meet face-to-face as soon as possible.  If he is not keen, well then you know. Online and social media connections are fake and give us a feeling of getting to know someone when indeed we know nothing of them.”