is challenging enough, without having to worry about scammers. After all, you may be fretting that the photos you've posted don't show you at your best. You may be wondering why you don't get more "likes" or "smiles" from the men or women you're trying to attract. And you may be worried about how things will go, if you meet someone in person for a date.
But if you aren't a little concerned about online con artists, you should be.
As online dating has become more popular and mainstream – Match.com is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year – and more and more dating sites are cropping up, the risks of .
Last year, the Better Business Bureau received over 4,000 complaints about dating sites; many gripes were about billing or other service-related issues, but there were enough protests about unsavory characters that the BBB put out a notice, warning consumers to be on the lookout for scammers. The Federal Trade Commission also frequently issues reports on online romance scams. There's even a name for what these con artists do: Catfishing – that is, posting a fake profile and hoping you'll take the bait.
So how can you tell the fakes from the flakes; the catfishes from the real catches? There are definitely some warning signs to be looking out for.
If someone wants your personal information too quickly. If you're writing each other back and forth over email, or you're talking on the phone, of course, you're going to want to share information about yourself. But don't share more than you're comfortable with, or before you feel the time is right, says Carole Brody Fleet, an Orange County, California-based speaker who has presented on online dating and has authored several books, including an upcoming title, "When Bad Things Happen to Good Women."
And Fleet notes that men should , too.
No matter your gender, "if someone is pushing you to reveal any personal information too soon, it should serve as a warning sign," Fleet says.
It can go the other way as well. If your potential suitor brings up his or her own personal information too soon, such as discussing his or her own financial situation "in any way, shape or form – that warning sign just became a lot bigger," Fleet adds.
And, of course, if you're embarking on a relationship with anyone, with severe money troubles, good person or not, ask yourself: Is this really what you want? If your potential suitor is talking this soon about how they're , don't be surprised if your new boyfriend or girlfriend and his or her kids are asking in a few months if they can move in with you.
If they can't meet with you soon. Obviously don't meet too soon. That could spell trouble for either gender if someone, for instance, wants to meet you a few hours after you begin a dialogue.
But as Fleet puts it, there is a fairly standard way people date online: " Let's say that you have met someone online. You have emailed, you have talked on the phone and things appear to be escalating in the right direction – but for some reason, they can never seem to find time to actually meet in person or they constantly schedule and cancel dates. This is an enormous red flag."
But some con artists are pretty cunning in finding reasons for not meeting.
Heather Wilkerson can tell you that. Wilkerson, 31, works for a software company and lives in Des Moines, Iowa. She started using online dating sites more than a year ago.
"I shaved my head to raise money for kids cancer research," says Wilkerson, who earned over $2,000 and donated 23 inches of hair. "I joined online dating because I could easily explain my baldness right then and there. In person, men wouldn’t even look at me. They thought I was sick, or Britney Spears-type crazy."
Everything seemed to be going fine with the online dating, and then on July 10 of this year, Wilkerson sent a message to a man on the popular, free dating site, OKCupid.com.
"His profile said that he lived in Collins, Iowa, which is a town about 30 minutes outside of Des Moines. He told me he really liked it there because it was a small town," says Wilkerson.
But the man, who called himself Nathan Pfister wasn't in Collins. He was working on a cargo ship delivering crude oil and gasoline around Europe. He said he was just leaving for a monthlong voyage when Wilkerson first messaged him.
It seems like an obvious red sign now, but Wilkerson approached him versus being sought out. She had no reason to think she hadn't found a ruggedly good looking man who traveled a lot, and thus, hadn't met the right one yet.
If they aren't pushy when a money issue comes up. If you've been communicating a while, and your romantic interest indicates there's a financial crisis on his or her end but appears reluctant for you to send money, that may be an ominous sign as well.
Pfister – and surely this isn't his real name; his name pops up on the Internet as someone who has attempted to dupe other women on OKCupid.com, around the same time he was communicating with Wilkerson – may not have worked on a cargo ship, but he was a heck of a fisherman. He reeled in Wilkerson, chatting online with her for almost two months, and they spoke several times on the phone. He seemed like a great guy.
Then one day, several weeks ago in late August, the ship's engine apparently blew. Pfister and his crew were stranded at sea.
"He said he couldn't get an email to the engine company to go through, so he asked if I'd send it," Wilkerson says. So she did.
The company that could provide the new engine responded, stating the engine would cost $177,000, plus a $10,000 delivery fee.
More emails ensued, and the engine company agreed to deliver the engine to Pfister's ship, where he could write them a check for it. But there was the matter of getting that $10,000 delivery charge to the company.
Pfister asked Wilkerson to email his bank and see if they would transfer the money from his account to the engine company.
"They responded and said they couldn't do it just by my word," Wilkerson said. "So he gave me his account info and asked me to do it."
Wilkerson logged into Pfister's bank account and saw that he had $4.8 million in there. She attempted to send $10,000 from the account to the engine company, but it didn't work. She messaged Pfister, and that's when he asked Wilkerson if she would mind sending $10,000 of her own money to the engine company from her account. He would, of course, pay her back.
She said no.
But he didn't press her to do it, so even then, Wilkerson didn't necessarily think she was dealing with a con artist.
Still, she had been thinking for a while that the situation was odd. Someone with $4.8 million in the bank didn't have he was in?
"How was it possible that I was the only hope he and his crew had? It seemed weird," Wilkerson says.
Nevertheless, Wilkerson, who had shaved her hair for charity, is someone who likes to help people, and she truly believed her digital boyfriend was stranded at sea. So she contacted the U.S. Coast Guard.
"I know that’s maybe extreme, but I felt I had to. I gave the name of his ship, and they were super helpful," Wilkerson says. "They eventually told me they didn’t have any record of that ship leaving Miami, which is where he said he left from."
That was when Wilkerson began to realize she was being had. Then, after some Internet sleuthing and discovering that the Web address to the bank website she'd logged into was a fraud, she realized how evil and twisted online scammers can be.
And while her digital boyfriend wasn't pressuring her to send the money, the emails from the engine company were intense and urgent. The company said that since she was Pfister's partner, she needed to send $10,000 quickly, so they could get the engine to him, and he could be rescued.
She emailed the engine company that she didn't have the money, and there was nothing more she could do. She never heard again from Pfister, which confirmed to Wilkerson that Pfister was also the person writing the emails from the engine company. It was a classic case of good cop vs. bad cop. Pfister was playing the good cop; and the engine company, the bad cop, .
"These people are too smart," Wilkerson says. "It's scary."