(NaturalNews) International criminal organizations are increasingly targeting online dating websites in scams that can financially and emotionally devastate their victims, warns a study by researchers from the University of Leicester and the University of Westminster.
"Professionals need to understand the awful details of this crime," researcher Monica Whitty said. "In romance scams, people have to deal not just with losing thousands of pounds. They have to deal with the psychological trauma of being both robbed and jilted by a 'lover.'"
Since 2007, nearly 230,000 people have been victimized by such scams in the United Kingdom alone, the study found. Scammers fake interest in a relationship in order to convince the victim to give them money. Alarmingly, the researchers found that while many victims of online dating scams were in fact suspicious when asked for money, they disregarded these suspicions because of their strong feelings for their (fictional) sweetheart.
New measures needed
"Daters need to be told, from the moment they sign up, that if a person is not willing to meet them in the first month they should move on," Whitty said. "They also need to be told never to respond to requests for money. Dating companies could target advice at particularly vulnerable individuals especially those with high romantic ideals, previous mental health problems or a history of abuse."
The justice system also needs to adapt to this new type of crime, the researchers said. The study showed that when they find out that they have been scammed, many victims go into denial and can even become suicidal. For that reason, the researchers suggest that police should notify a health professional as soon as an online dating scam is reported.
A victim's trauma may also make prosecuting the case more difficult, the researchers warned. For that reason, the researchers suggest that courts treat victims of such scams as "vulnerable witnesses," allowed to testify from a distance.
"Imagine having to confront a criminal in court when you had believed them to be the love of your life," Whitty said.
Users of online dating sites can make themselves less appealing to scammers by protecting their personal information, experts say. For example, all phone numbers and addresses (including email addresses) should be kept hidden until you have met someone in person. Users should be wary of profile photos that look too suggestive, or too much like model shots. Other major warning signs are incomplete profiles or messages that seem to have been poorly translated from another language.
Tony Neate, Get Safe Online's chief executive said: "As more of us bring our personal lives into the virtual world, it's crucial that people are extra vigilant about the information they share." He added, "The internet has revolutionized dating and has many benefits, but we want the public to take our advice and enjoy meeting new people safely. Don't let online crime stop you meeting someone special this year."