This post has been percolating for a week or two, with some debate in my head as to whether I should write it. But I've been snarking about it already on facebook, and maybe getting it out of my head will help. :)
So I've been at least testing the waters of dating sites again, at the very least looking for more practice with "first dates" and the like. The sites I've been picking have both local people and people from other countries. And of course, with my Russian studies, I've always considered the possibility that I might find someone from another country to date or fall in love with. I won't debate whether long distance dating a good idea or not -- I feel like I've had that conversation with a few people and that I have a good handle on the pros, cons, risks and rewards. (From my perspective, in brief, I have an open mind: it is possible to find a good and fulfilling relationship with someone here or someone half-way around the world; I'm not limiting myself any single possibility).
But one of the risks of long-distance relationships and dating sites is dating scams -- that you aren't talking to the person you think you are, just a filthy scammer trying to take your money. That's what I'm going to ramble about today. Mostly, to describe what most of them look like and how to detect and avoid them. Yes, I've studied security thinking, why do you ask?
One of the debates about posting things like this is that it is a potential tool to build a better scam. If someone can get past these guidelines, could they scam me? I suppose it is possible, but honestly, it requires too much work to accomplish. Meaning, I would have to attract an extraordinary scammer.
To date, I've ever been successfully scammed by an online scammer. The scams I've seen someone try to pull on me are all pretty similar. They move quickly (3-5 emails), try for emotional attachment, and then try to get you to send money. Often, they use hardships to gain sympathy. I think like many scams, they prey on weakness. Much of the cure, from my perspective, is to be strong, to know what you need to believe that a relationship is real, and to rarely compromise much on those beliefs.
Briefly, the typical pattern I've seen is:
1. Spammed intro email: "Hi, I'm CUTE_EASTERN_EUROPEAN_GIRL. I think you sound like a wonderful person! Please write to me at EVIL_SCAMMER@some_domain".
2. If you write to them, they send the first letter, almost always a pre-written note. It will almost always come with 3 photos. (Rarely 2 or 4 -- I don't know why this is. I've joked that someone must sell a scammer kit). Often, the photos are model-quality professional photos.
3. You exchange 2-3 emails, each from the girl will sound like she's more and more attracted to you. Each will usually have new photos. Often, the photos will get more racy as time goes by (rarely explicit nudity tho).
Depending on the skills of the scammer, these notes will either be very form-letter like, or they might be half-and-half, meaning they will say a few things in reply to your questions/comments, and then the rest is their existing scam latter. Often, you will notice a big quality difference between the answers to your questions and these other sections. The spontaneous content is of lower quality.
4. You receive an email that effectively is asking for money. For example, "I lost my bag with all my stuff I need for work. Now what will I do?!" or "Your girl is using our translation service and can no longer afford to pay for this service. If you wish to continue to correspond, you can work with us to establish an account for her."
The thing is, this is a VERY quick escalation and ramp up. They aren't trying to keep a mark on the hook for months, they are looking for the score and the brush off.
So, how to defend against this. I've got a few thoughts here.
1. Don't look for online long-distance dating at all. Ignore all introductory emails if they come from another country. Honestly, that's the best defense.
Better to look for personal introductions, friends of friends. Hell, that's usually true for local dating also.
2. Be strong. Don't trust so quickly. Really, do you want to be with someone who is telling you how amazing you are after two emails? Real relationships take time to develop, and I think you need to see deeds, not just words.
You must keep some level of skepticism about anyone that you haven't met in person. If someone seems too good to be true, they probably are not a real person. Hell, even in person, I think people need to demonstrate their trustworthiness.
3. Use google image search on every photo. Probably 3/4 of the scams I've seen use photos of lesser known celebrities or models, so a google search finds the real person fairly quickly.
The more professional ALL her photos are, the more likely it is that this is a scam. Come on, not everyone manages to get perfect lighting in every shot. Most girls will not have professional lingerie shots.
4. Use google search on the email address she's using. There are also web pages specifically devoted to scams and tracking email and IP addresses. The scammers don't usually create burner addresses for each mark.
5. Use google image search on some of the text in the email, usually scammers will reuse some of the same text. Again, the scammers have to be efficient or it isn't worth their while.
6. Ask early to skype or use some other video chat service. This way you can see a real person talking to you. Most scammers will refuse here, saying it is too expensive or they have some other problem to prevent it.
Phone calls are a possible second place, but are still not very good at gauging whether someone is real. And I've seen at least one person that I detected using photos, but was otherwise interested in talking on the phone.
As a VERY distant third, ask for a personal photo or video that shows something specific for you. In other words, something that if they were a real person, they could go take a photo that matches some desire of yours or has a personal message in it. Something that can't be photoshopped.
My experience is that all of these attempts will fail. They lost their phone. The war has damaged the internet so they can't send video. They can't afford to pay the translation service. And so on and so on. It is distantly possible that some of these excuses are legitimate, but all of them? Unlikely.
For what it is worth, skype is not simply a good tool for detecting scammers. I think it is a great tool for establishing real relationships if you are trying for something long distance. We are visual creatures, and crave body language from our partners.
7. Time: I think most of these scammers are trying for short-term rewards, if they can play the whole scam in 2 weeks, it is a win for them. So if you are clear that you need time to build a real relationship, they will probably rush their game, send notes that are off in tone, or just leave.
For example, recently, I had been contacted by someone. I made it clear in my first email that I wanted skype. She said she didn't (internet problems). I said that there are too many scammers, and without something tangible, it would be difficult to build the trust required for a relationship. . I got two messages asking why I didn't trust her (while she of course, trusted me with all her heart), and then the scammer moved on to the "you need to pay for translation services if you want to keep talking to her). I think the last email was the only one where the scammer was back "on script".
8. Avoid deep personal information that can be used against you. Of course, you wouldn't give your social security number to anyone. But avoid other information that can be used against you. For example, don't say you are going on vacation or out of the house or anything like that.
One site I saw had a good set of rules: don't use photos on dating sites that are also used on other social media. In other words, google image search can be used against you, the mark, as well. I don't think I've seen much evidence of this in practice, but it is out there.
At some level of paranoia, use a different phone number or an anonymous email address. Or at least a different email address that you don't mind abandoning. (I use a different email address for friends than I use for dating sites).
9. Ask questions that require answers that are hard to write as boilerplate. I don't have any great examples offhand. Honestly, the best thing I've found to throw them off their game is simply to talk about how difficult trust is and to ask them to show you something real. They can't do it.
Anyway, that's a list of specific things I've considered, but also just reiterating general principles: be skeptical, be honest, be cautious. Give someone a chance to prove themselves to you, and don't accept it when they can't. (There's another lesson here in life, which is how to avoid putting up barriers that are so high that no one can get past them, but that's a different kind of problem, one I'm still calibrating for myself. Trust is like a well-cooked egg, neither too runny or too rubbery).