Boy meets girl online. Boy can’t get together for dates, ever, but he has a plausible excuse. He’s stranded in Nigeria where his oil rig exploded. He’s waiting for his inheritance. He has a hook for a hand. Girl wires huge amounts of money before realizing she’s been screwed. As a relationship writer and private investigator in training, I sadly see this scenario play out every day. Deadspin reported that Notre Dame senior linebacker Manti T’eo may have been the victim of an Internet ‘catfish’. After it emerged that the ‘girlfriend’ who supposedly had cancer and died never really existed at all, he released a statement claiming he was the “victim of what was apparently someone’s sick joke and constant lies.” But he’s just the tip of the iceberg.
According to the Internet Crime Complaint Center, love scams cost victims $50 million in 2011. It’s impossible to calculate how many hours of their lives were lost to dreaming, emailing, and talking to someone who doesn’t exist. Many victims don’t come forward because they are afraid that they will look stupid.
They are right. Because love makes us all stupid. Think about it: Falling in love is chemically similar in the brain to doing a line of cocaine. Would you make any other major life decision while high?
The FBI has published guidelines on how to avoid Internet scams. But none of the sleuthing techniques will work if you don’t change yourself, and understand that ‘soft-hearted’ doesn’t have to be synonymous with sucker. Once you can weed out the crazy people, dating becomes a lot more fun.
Scamming can happen to anyone. Very recently I had doubts about my network executive friend’s new man, a wealthy investor she met online. Looking through his exotic vacation shots in St. Tropez and Cannes I noticed that he was wearing the same black suit in every picture—and cast no shadow. Either her guy was a vampire, or he Photoshopped his entire life from his basement! Further digging showed he a criminal record, and his ‘investing’ was code for compulsive gambling. Luckily she didn’t waste too much time, because I had his mug shot before cocktail hour.
If you’re drunk on dopamine, consider this your reality bitch slap. As someone who has been scammed herself, trust me, you need it.
1. Dump Prince Charming. My first boyfriend was a hot French guy who should have been a Lifetime Movie of the Week. He told me that he had to go on secret missions for the government, and had a wife who died in a tragic scuba diving accident. I should have realized immediately that James Bond had a desk job and made up the dead wife to avoid commitment, but even though his story was crazy I bought into the sexy spy fantasy. Now I know that John Cusack is not going to show up outside my window with a boom box, and if he did I would probably slap him with a restraining order. Of course scammers should be stopped. But they are able to suck us in because victims don’t want to lose the fantasy. Detectives have a saying ‘if it seems too good to be true, it probably is’. Think about it: Would a neurosurgeon Daniel Craig look-alike really be home every night calling someone he’s never met?
2. Keep your heart open, but your wallet closed. When Meatloaf sang ‘I would do anything for love, but I won’t do that’ I’m guessing he was talking about sending money to a stranger. D’Teo’s pseudo girlfriend supposedly had cancer and was in a car crash. When your online lover Vlad tells you that his daughter needs reconstructive surgery after her face was torn off by that silverback gorilla, resist the urge to break out the small violins. Never, ever give money to a stranger. You wouldn’t give wads of cash to someone you just met in a bar would you? If your answer was yes, let me know where you hang out.
3. Everyone lies online. Even me. I actually hate long walks on the beach. Men add inches to height and zeros to their bank balance and women subtract years and pounds. But if you learn to treat online dating like FBI profiling, the worst thing that can happen is finding yourself sitting across from someone who looks like he ate the person in his profile–not losing your life savings. When I kept getting emails from an account with a stunning woman on a beach, I noticed that she seemed to have friends with only one static picture on their pages. Then I did a reverse image search by plugging her photo into Tineye and Google Images, and saw that the photo was actually supermodel Bar Refaeli. Verify your facts with reliable sources. Is his company page professional, or does it looks like it was set up in mom’s basement? Have you been to his office? Is her business listed with the Better Business Bureau? If she’s a doctor, lawyer or any other profession that has a board, is she a member?
4. Forget following your heart. Trust your gut instead. These are the hairs that stand up on the back of your neck. Don’t get those confused with organs farther south. Remember, infatuation messes with the chemicals in our head. We are temporarily insane. Plan accordingly.
5. If they won’t meet, hit delete. Scammers often have excuses for needing a long email courtship, like working abroad or being trapped in a well. But I’ve translated the detective agency’s ‘get the money first’ rule into dating by implementing a Cappuccino Consultation Fee. If he can’t shell out the small price to meet you for a cup of coffee (or at least a webcam) he’s hiding something. Like a hunchback. Or a wife and kids. Yes, I know that online dating can lead to long-term love, but don’t let anyone waste weeks of your time before meeting in person—or at least on Skype or webcam.
6. Get a life. I get it. You’re depressed. You’ve just gone through a breakup and your Facebook stalking has confirmed that your ex is dating a hottie. I’ve been there! Even though you want the world to know that you are ready for romance with the next available bipedal mammal, don’t create a profile with a name like SoulMate4U or NewlyDivorcedDiva. That’s because con men are sharks, and your desperation is blood in the water. You have a fabulous life, and you deserve someone great. Repeat this until you believe it!
7. Don’t settle. Don’t let your obsession with a fairy tale keep you from a great reality. I still don’t have all of the answers, but I’ve learned the hard way to not be afraid of asking questions. An honest person will want to put you at ease. The men and women who show up every day may fart as often as they make flowery declarations, but they will be real.
Once you learn the difference between people you want to handcuff to the bed and the ones who need to be handcuffed in the back of a police car, you’re on your way to a happy ending–for real.