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“She had all the qualities I was looking for,” Ralph, a guest a recent episode of Dr. Phil said of his long-distance “girlfriend.” Ralph, a widower in his 60s, was adamant that “Louise” was the woman of his dreams. He was so enamored with her that he willingly depleted his life savings – over $100,000 – so he could bring Louise from Europe to the United States so they could live happily ever after.

Sadly, this love interest was merely an elaborate ruse in a popular online dating scam called “catfishing.” In this scam, the perpetrator uses a fake online dating account to reel in lonely and vulnerable people through dating sites and social media. It’s a long-con game where the scammer slowly worms his/her way into the heart of their target and ensnares them into an online relationship built on a foundation of lies. In the best-case scenarios, these scammers are lonely, insecure, and are looking to get some attention and validation. But in the worst cases, the scammers find insidious ways to not only perpetuate the lie but to also steal significant sums of money from lovesick strangers who don’t know the wiser.

Ralph is far from alone in falling victim to such schemes. In fact, according to the Federal Trade Commission from 2015 to 2019 over 84,000 filed complaints alleging they were scammed by their so-called love interests online culminating in more than $300 million stolen from these individuals.

Seniors, many of whom are widowed, divorced, or just haven’t had much luck dating in the past, are especially vulnerable to falling for these scams.

“Online daters of all ages have fallen victim to the cruel crooks who break hearts and empty bank accounts. But an FTC review of 2018 cases found that while the overall median loss resulting from a romance scam was $2,600, the median jumped to $10,000 when the victim was age 70 or older,” the AARP warned.

The good news is, there are obvious warning signs. Most importantly any ask for money from someone without first meeting in person is suspect. While it may be tempting to float an object of one’s affection a loan especially if they claim to need money to travel for a face-to-face meeting, falling for this plea will only be the beginning of an endless laundry list of requests for money, cautions Aunshul Rege, an associate professor of criminal justice at Temple University.

Rege advises those wading into the online dating waters to take their time and make sure to extensively vet any serious relationship candidates. With just a few keystrokes, one is able to Google a plethora of information about individuals to see if what they are saying about themselves checks out. One can also run a reverse image search to ensure that they’re not stealing someone else’s identity. Finally, to borrow an old truism, patience is a virtue and there’s nothing like a meeting for a good old fashioned cup of coffee to suss out potential partners.

Navigating the world of online dating (even without the dangers of being scammed) can be overwhelming, which is why it’s also important to clue your children, friends and relatives and fill them in on your online dating journey.

If you feel that you may be the victim of an online dating scam, the AARP warns against staying silent: They’re advised to “keep notes and report your suspicions to the online platform where you met, and to local police, the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center or the closest Secret Service office.”

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