Lentis/Online Dating Scams

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 can then be 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 traveling (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 InfluencesEdit

As an outsider, many online romance scams seem obvious. Fifty-two percent of Internet-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, online scam victims 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 BiasEdit

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 at risk for online dating scams, and more people on dating websites can lead to more scammers looking to exploit them.

Valence EffectEdit

The valence effect occurs 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 they will have the same success in their online relaitionships. 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, causing them to overlook suspicious online behavior in exchange for a chance at love.

Related ScamsEdit

Confidence ScamsEdit

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 FraudsEdit

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.


Catfishing is another form of online dating scam, but unlike those above it does not typically involve the scammer trying to get money from the target. It is defined as "the phenomenon of internet predators that fabricate online identities and entire social circles to trick people into emotional/romantic relationships (over a long period of time)." [23]. The individuals use similar tactics as above and become romantically involved with their targets. Their motives can range from elaborate pranks to pleasure in the manipulation of others. [24] Catfishers often maintain connections with their targets for extended periods of time, ranging from several months to several years.

Catfishing in the MediaEdit

The term “catfishing” was coined by Nev Schulman in his movie “Catfish”, produced in 2010, that details his emotional experience with an online dating scammer. [25]. After pursuing an online relationship with what he thought was a young woman named Megan, Schulman discovered that "Megan" was really a middle-aged married woman. Schulman took the name "catfish" after a story the woman's husband told: catfish were added to tanks of cod crossing the ocean to keep the fish active so they would taste better upon arrival. In life, the husband explained, there were also "catfish"--people that keep others on their toes, keeping life from being boring. [26] After finding success with his movie and hearing about other victims stories, MTV created a reality program, “Catfish: The TV Show” that documents the experiences of individuals who suspect they are being catfished. The victims are encouraged to contact their online romantic interest, and the production crew facilitates a meeting between them. The show is interesting in that, in cases where the individual was being catfished, the crew does not attempt to embarrass the catfisher, as one might expect, but rather listens to their motives objectively and tries to promote understanding. [27]. There is some debate on the legitimacy of the stories portrayed and production. [28]

Manti Te’o CaseEdit

The picture purported to be that of Lennay Kekua. The image actually shows Diane O'Meara, a former classmate of Ronaiah Tuiasosopo

A well-known case of catfishing involved the former Notre Dame linebacker, Manti Te’o and the mysterious figure of Lennay Kekua. The story garnered national attention in September 2012 after Notre Dame's upset victory over Michigan State when the football star told a reporter, "I'm just so happy that I had a chance to honor my grandmother and my girlfriend and my family,” referring to Kekua, who had died the same day as his grandmother less than a week earlier. [29] Te'o's "poster boy" image combined with Notre Dame's undefeated regular season kept the story in the headlines, particularly as the strange details started to emerge. Ultimately, on January 16th, 2013, Deadspin published an article revealing the hoax. "Lennay Kekua" was actually Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, an acquaintance of Te'o's, and her online personality went back as far 2008 when "Kekua" messaged Tessi Toluta'u, another family friend of Te'o's, on Facebook asking for advice on beauty pageants. According to Te'o the two became Facebook friends in 2009, and they began an emotional relationship that became romantic in 2011. Communication between the two only occurred through messaging and telephone, and the two would never speak face-to-face. Te'o did plan to fly to Los Angeles to visit her in April 2012 before she abruptly cancelled. Kekua also got into a car accident later that same month, an event confirmed by her brother and Te'o's own friend, John Pepelnjak. In June 2012, Kekua informed Te'o that she had been diagnosed with leukemia. He attempted to visit her once more, but was unable to because of family commitments. Kekua "died" in September, but the hoax would continue. In November, Te'o met Tuiasosopo at an event set up to honor and remember Kekua. Te'o then received a call on December 6th from Kekua saying that she was not dead. The scam finally ended with the publication of the Deadspin exposé, and Te'o receiving a call from Tuiasosopo apologizing for the prank. [30]

Te'o's case is a textbook example of catfishing. The scam does not involve money and is undertaken by the catfisher for emotional purposes. In an interview with Dr. Phil, Tuiasosopo held that he catfished for self-validation. [31]. One source claims that Tuiasosopo was attempting to "recover" from homosexuality, and "had invented the persona of Kekua to normalize his feelings about men." [32]. Several other "red flags" are typical of catfishing. Abrupt cancellation of face-to-face meetings and heartbreaking or emotional events, in this case a car accident and sudden serious illness, are characteristic of this type of scam. Kekua posing as an attractive model, a profile that seems to good to be true, also should have set off some alarms.

Facebook ExperimentEdit

To show how easy Catfishing can be, the Wikibooks team conducted an experiment, using classic dating scam techniques. A fake Facebook profile was created for a fake UVa student. Using the search term “#blessed” on Twitter, the team gathered pictures from the profile of a young, attractive female from the UK. The pictures were publicly available, and thus easy to copy. Once the pictures were collected, the team created a fake email and Facebook account under the name Julia Perkins. The team then added their friends and students in the STS 4500 class using Julia’s account. Within 20 hours, Julia’s profile had 40 friends, 7 of which were in the STS 4500 class. This large social network made her profile seem legitimate. These tactics are used by Catfishers to win the trust of their victims, who assume an impostor could not have such a copious amount of Facebook friends. Two people who received friend requests from Julia did, however, question her profile, and confronted her on Facebook. This shows some people are vigilant of such scams. However, most people who added Julia did not question the validity of her identity. Upon revealing the experiment, many people who added Julia mentioned that they added her because they had mutual friends. Some participants even thought they had met her previously. In this case, it likely would have been easy to begin an online friendship or relationship, as Julia's seemingly legitimate profile convinced many that she was real. On social media, where mere acquaintances are often added as "friends", the use of Catfishing can be quite easy.


The psychology behind Catfishing can be explained by deindividuation. Deindividuation is the psychological phenomena in which the immersion of an individual within a crowd results in a loss of self-identity, causing the individual to deviate from acceptable social behaviors[33]. Deindividuation was first used to explain mob mentality, in which large crowds are capable of violent behavior [34]. Deindividuation theory states that there is a direct correlation between uninhibited behavior and group size [35]. Thus, the larger the group, the more anonymous the person feels. The Internet serves as the perfect medium, with near-complete anonymity. This is true in the case of Catfishing, in which the anonymity provided by the fake profile strips the individual from their identity. Thus, social norms are abandoned and predators lose empathy for their victims. This phenomena is seen throughout the Internet. A study by Arthur Santana showed that anonymous online commenters were more likely to be uncivil than those who registered to comment[36]. This led Popular Science to ban comments on their website [37]. More recently, the popular app Yik Yak has received attention for its negative comments. Yik Yak is an anonymous messaging app, requiring no login or password, in which users post messages that can be viewed by anyone within a 10mile radius[38]. It is used extensively by college and high school students to post comical statuses and updates about school activities[39]. However, the app is also used heavily for cyber-bullying, hate speech, and threats[39]. Deindividuation can be attributed to this behavior. Deindividuation online serves as an example that when there is a lack of accountability, people deviate from social norms.


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.


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Further readingEdit