With Valentine’s Day approaching, you can be sure that the scammers will want to take advantage of lovebirds everywhere. From romance scams and sextortion, to fake dating sites and phishing campaigns, here’s how to avoid a sting in the tail this Valentine’s Day.

Romance scams

Stories of online romance scams are abundant on the internet. And with COVID-19 having forced everyone to stay home much more and not meet in real life, it’s no wonder that reports of these sorts of scams have significantly increased since the start of the pandemic.

So whether you meet someone on a dating site or social media, here are some common red flags to look out for:

  • Their profile and picture seem too good to be true.
  • They profess their love very quickly.
  • They share a lot about themselves—often personal stuff—in the first meeting.
  • They claim to be overseas and cannot stay in one place for long.
  • They try to lure you from whatever platform you are on to talk to you via email or video chat.
  • They claim to need money for something, such as to help their friends or family, repatriation, or something else entirely.

How to avoid romance scams:

  • Don’t give scammers the information they need. Scammers rely on what you volunteer about yourself online to tweak their script and lure you in.
  • Do an image search of the photo and the name of the person you’re in touch with. Scammers often steal someone else’s image to use as bait.
  • Go slow. Scammers tend to rush, building rapport with their victims as quickly as possible to fleece them of their money as equally quickly.
  • If they encourage you to invest in something—be suspicious. Start digging around online about the company that, they say, is worth investing in. Never send them money.
  • Follow your gut instinct. If something feels off, cut off contact immediately and report your experience to the police, the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), and the dating or social media site where you met the scammer.

Sextortion

Sextortion is where someone threatens to share your private or sensitive files, such as photos or videos, unless you do something for them—which can be send cash to them, share more images or perform sex acts. A sextortion attempt could take several forms, but there are two common tactics sextortion scammers use.

  1. A scammer contacts their target via email, telling them they have a video of the target in a compromising position (usually watching porn). The sender then asks the target to send Bitcoin in exchange for the video being kept quiet. It’s important to note that sextortion emails of this nature are empty bluffs and must be ignored.
  2. A scammer befriends their target—often a minor—on social media, video chat, dating sites, or online video games. They coerce their target into sending videos of themselves naked or performing a sexual act. This material is then used to force the victim to create more videos.

How to protect yourself from sextortion:

  • If a scammer tells you they have compromising images of you and they show you no evidence of the images, they probably don’t have any. Offering “proof” such as a password or phone number of yours just means they’ve got that data from another breach, and doesn’t mean they have access to your computer or webcam.
  • If they do show you evidence of the images, report to your local authorities and the FBI as soon as you can. Never engage with the sextortionist.
  • Be extremely cautious about what you say to someone online. When asked certain questions, be vague and never give specifics. Remember that online, people can pretend to be someone they’re not, and can even look and sound like a different person with today’s technology.
  • Make sure you personalize the security and privacy settings of all your social media and chat accounts. Lock down your accounts as much as you can, and keep as much private as possible.
  • Remember that once you send something to someone—whether they’re a stranger, a romantic partner, relative, or friend—you have no control over where it goes next.

Fake dating websites

Scammers create dating services that appear legitimate, and do what every dating site asks you to do, like filling in your profile information and your card details. But the websites are fake.

According to the Better Business Bureau (BBB) which classifies this as a type of romance scam, once you have signed up, you’ll start getting messages from other members who have profiles that lack basic information and photos.

The site may even ask you to connect with others that don’t match your profile, such as those living in a different city or those outside your preferred date range. If you cancel your membership, the fake dating website keeps billing you anyway.

Some sites even have features locked behind a “paywall” wherein you have to buy some form of digital token or in-dating site coins to talk to other users. In one case, a victim was double charged for buying coins and bombarded with messages from almost 200 dating service users.

Note that since these sites are fake, site members are also likely fake. They could be bots or site employees handling multiple account personalities.

How to avoid fake dating sites

  • Do your research. Ask around your friends in real life about what sites they use. If you are researching the sites online, prefix your search terms with “scam” and “reviews” to find out what people really think.
  • Be suspicious when many people start lining up to meet you, especially if you have an incomplete profile. This is too good to be true.
  • Know how the dating website works, including how they charge members and how much. If you cancel a membership to a particular site then contact your bank to make sure the ongoing payment is cancelled from your end.

Phishing scams, some with a touch of malware

Valentine’s Day themed phishing scams come in many flavors, but one of the most common is the phony florist or delivery driver, who sends you an email (or possibly an SMS message) to warn you about a missed delivery.

Spam messages like these are ten-a-penny, but many people buy flowers and gifts for loved ones online. So, led by worry and panic, they click the link from the email/SMS to punch in their details, only for them to be stolen and misused.

Other examples of phishy messages jumping on the Valentine’s Day trend are emails that say there is a problem with a transaction after a product has been bought, or a supposed courier claiming that there is an extra charge you have to pay.

How to protect yourself from phishing

  • Never click links on emails or SMS messages. Instead, go straight to the website that claims have a problem with your item. If it’s legit, you’ll likely see a message there.
  • When purchasing something online, always pay with a credit card. Credit cards have more fraud protections in place than other banking cards. It is also easier for users to dispute charges.
  • Refrain from scanning QR codes if there are other payment options. If it cannot be avoided, check the URL destination to ensure that you are directed to the site you’re expecting to go to.
  • Make sure you have installed an antivirus solution that catches malware fast before it can wreak havoc on your computer, and keep it up to date.

Head over heart, always

When it comes to romance scammers, we have to let our heads lead over our hearts. With Valentine’s Day around the corner, stop to take a breath and consider things before chatting, clicking, replying, or anything else online. It might save you heartache further down the line.

Stay safe!