Relationships are notoriously difficult, a hard truth that’s been both an ongoing trauma for people in search of love and an ongoing goldmine for everyone from divorce lawyers to dating sites. One of the biggest and most successful of those dating sites has been eHarmony, with its comforting focus on serious relationships and its much-hyped grounding in solid psychology.
The company points with pride to its vast numbers of success stories, and indeed there are worse places to go looking for love. Unfortunately there are also a great many eHarmony scammers, looking to mine the site for emotionally vulnerable victims. Here’s how to recognize the site’s shady players, and protect yourself against being victimized.
Scammers Leverage (and Subvert) eHarmony’s Wholesome Image
Every dating site has its own unique personality. Tinder, for example, famously became a billion-dollar startup by making it easy for twenty-somethings to find quick hookups. eHarmony is very different, almost the “anti-Tinder” (actually eHarmony came along several years earlier, so perhaps it’s fairer to call Tinder the “anti-eHarmony”).
eHarmony has arguably the best, and certainly the most wholesome, backstory imaginable for a dating site. Founder Neil Clark Warren is a theologian who also holds a Ph.D. in psychology, and spent years in a marital counseling practice. The idea for eHarmony grew out of his clinical experience: Many of the couples he counseled simply had too little in common, he felt, to build a successful relationship. In response, he created eHarmony, with its famously/notoriously detailed questionnaire, in an attempt at bringing science into affairs of the heart. In many interviews, including this one from 2005, he explicitly described his work as an attempt at improving the quality of marriages and reducing the divorce rate.
The company’s advertising has always focused on a desire to help people make deep connections and form serious relationships. Unfortunately, that very focus is why eHarmony is like catnip to scammers: A successful scam requires victims to commit to the relationship, and eHarmony is all about commitment.
The Classic “Money Sting” eHarmony Scammer
Fans of jazz or classical music (or for that matter, the Grateful Dead) know that a skilled musician can craft a nearly infinite number of variations on a musical theme. Scammers, unfortunately, have that same degree of creativity. There are many versions of the classic “send me money” scheme, but they’re all variations on the same basic theme.
During the first stage, the scammer rapidly builds a relationship with you based on shared interests and attitudes. You’ll be showered with messages, compliments, and maybe even small gifts. Then, once you’re well and truly invested in the relationship, there will be a request for money. It’s often a small amount at first, and the explanation will be entirely plausible and in keeping with the persona they’ve established. A few examples (of thousands!) might include the following:
- A sudden health issue that needs treatment
- A car problem
- Legal difficulties, and their associated fees
- A credit card that’s locked, because he/she forgot to let the provider know they’d be traveling
- Being stranded because of a canceled flight
- Being unable to access bank accounts, because of identity theft
- Needing money to escape from a controlling or abusive ex
Once you’ve sent money the first time, you cross the line from being groomed to being exploited. From that point, the requests (and sometimes, demands) for money will keep coming.
The Investment Scammer
A variation on the standard money-oriented scam is investment fraud. The setup here is that the scammer either is actively involved in a highly lucrative investment scheme and wants to cut you in on it, or has been offered an exceptional investment but lacks the resources to take full advantage. The latter of those is a simple money grab, like the scams listed above, but the former is both sneakier and potentially costlier.
In the investment scheme scam, your crush will be involved with some form of unconventional investment — often cryptocurrency, at present — that offers returns at well above market rates. You’ll be coaxed to invest your money, often paying out a few commissions or “brokerage fees” along the way, and will receive glowing reports on how your money is growing. This keeps up for as long as you continue to send money, but the tune changes once you want to cash out. At that point you’ll be told you need to pay various administrative fees, penalties or taxes in exchange for withdrawing your money. The scammer then disappears, along with the so-called fees and taxes as well as your “investment.”
This one’s not always a romance scam — plain ol’ greed can hook people into it as well — but it works better if you trust the scammer, so it often comes wrapped up in a romance scam.
The Dangerous “Do Me a Favor” Scammer
Not all scams ask for money directly. Some take an indirect tack, and can actually be more costly (and even downright dangerous) than the straightforward “send me money” frauds. Usually these scams are pitched as doing a favor for your online crush.
In one common version, the scammer — who’s always got a plausible reason for being out of town — has obligations to meet, and asks you to look after it for him/her. You’ll receive a check, or a wire transfer, and then transfer money to various destinations. If it’s a check, it subsequently bounces and you’re on the hook for the money. If it’s a transfer, there are a couple of ways it can work: Either the transfer was paid with a fraudulent credit card and was reversed, again leaving you on the hook; or the transfer was legit but the funds were not, and you’ve just helped criminals launder money.
A second variation of the same basic theme may ask you to ship things out of the country for the scammer, ostensibly either because the seller doesn’t ship outside the U.S., or “it’s just some stuff I left behind,” or perhaps “it’s a box of documents I need for my business/court case/whatever.” In reality it might be stolen goods, or gift cards purchased with illicit funds (again, money laundering). In a worst-case scenario, the package might contain drugs or other illegal substances.
That last scenario has a wrinkle that’s especially dangerous for victims, in which the scammer asks you to pick up something in “Place A” and bring it to “Place B.” If the contents of that package happen to be illegal, and you’re caught, you could face jail time (or in some countries, the death sentence).
The “Gone Phishing” Scammer
One more type of scammer you’ll often encounter isn’t directly after your money (or at least, not just your money). They’ll use eHarmony to build trust with victims for the purpose of phishing and identity theft, rather than defrauding you directly. They may send you a link to a malicious website, for example, that masquerades as a legitimate site in order to steal your login and password. Alternatively, they might use a link in a message to infect your devices with malware, which in turn gives them access to passwords, financial information and anything else they can find.
This opens the door to a number of unpleasant possibilities. One, of course, is that they’ll gain access to your accounts and loot them. A farther-reaching danger is that they’ll combine your ID with personal information they’ve gleaned through their conversations with you, or your social media accounts (you friended them, right?) to steal your identity. With enough personal information, they could get credit and make purchases in your name, use your accounts to phish your friends and family, and ultimately sell your information forward to other scammers for a final profit.
Recognizing eHarmony Scammers
While the bad news is that scammers can work thousands of variations on a given theme, there are just a handful of recurring themes that they return to over and over again. That means the good news is that informed eHarmony users can learn to recognize and avoid them.
Most scammers share a number of distinct behaviors and characteristics in common. A few of these include the following:
- Wanting to take your conversations off-site at the earliest opportunity, and communicate directly
- Always having an excuse for not meeting in person, or video calling
- Having suspiciously good profile photos (gee, almost as if they’d stolen stock photos from professionals…)
- Moving the relationship along at a breakneck speed, committing early and vocally
- Asking you a lot of personal, probing questions
- Deflecting personal questions from you
- Claiming to be a veteran or service member
- Claiming to be local to your area, but currently serving or traveling elsewhere
This relatively brief list barely scratches the surface. For a deeper dive into which scams are out there and how to recognize them, you can turn to a number of sites, beginning with eHarmony’s own safety tips. The AARP has an excellent page about romance scams, so does the FTC, and the BBB’s Scam Tracker (choose “Romance” as the scam type) is hair-raisingly instructive. We’ve covered romance scams repeatedly on this blog as well.
Protecting Yourself from eHarmony Scammers
Educating yourself is just the first step in protecting yourself from scammers on eHarmony (or any other dating or social media platform, for that matter). Most of us are attuned to the risks of sales offers that seem too good to be true, but we don’t apply the same degree of skepticism to the people we meet online. That doesn’t mean you need to be paranoid, because most people are not, in fact, out to get you. The best way to sum up a good balance might be “trust…but verify.”
The photos on a dating profile are a good starting point, because of course most scammers won’t post a real selfie. Photos on a fake profile are often professional shots from a stock photo agency, or outright stolen from someone else’s social media accounts. It only takes a moment to paste those profile photos into Google’s reverse image search tool, and see if they’re out there on the Web. If they turn out to be stock photos, or if they show up on someone else’s social media accounts (or a bunch of dating sites, under different names) that’s the biggest and reddest of flags.
Verify the person (or perhaps, the persona) as well. At the very least, you’ve got a name and a putative location, and if you’ve been communicating off-site you might have a phone number and email address as well. Look those up with Spokeo’s people search tools, and verify that the information you’ve got corresponds to a real person in that same location. If your eHarmony “match” claims to own a business, search the business as well. If it appears to have no online or legal presence, or if its website looks like something a high-schooler could have thrown together in 15 minutes, that’s also grounds for plenty of sober second thoughts.
Oh, and one last point: eHarmony will email you if someone you’ve been in contact with is removed from the platform as a potential scammer. You might want to make a point of reading their mails, and not simply assuming they’re promotional.
What To Do Next
If you suspect you’re in contact with a scammer, or that you’ve already been scammed, you’re (sadly) in good company. The FTC reported a record-high $304 million in losses to romance scammers during 2020, an increase of about 50 percent over 2019. Furthermore, all age groups were affected: Twenty-somethings were the fastest-growing group in the report, the 40–69 age bracket was the likeliest to lose money, and the over-70s had the highest losses per incident. Even worse, those numbers are almost certainly understated because many victims are ashamed to admit they’ve been taken in.
Twelve-step programs like to say “admitting a problem is the first step to fixing it,” and that certainly applies here. If you’ve been scammed, your money is probably gone for good, but reporting the fraud can help make it at least incrementally harder for scammers to swindle people in the future.
Start by reporting your match to eHarmony itself, along with any evidence you’ve gathered. If scammers have used the same profile to contact others as well, being blocked by eHarmony might save them from being victimized. If you’ve suffered a financial loss, report the fraud to the FTC, the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) and your own local law enforcement. If you used a wire transfer, gift cards or similar mechanism to send money, alert those companies as well. Finally, sharing the details of the scam on the BBB’s Scam Tracker might help someone else recognize and avoid a similar trap.
Getting Back in the Saddle
If you’ve been hoodwinked by a romance scammer, whether money has changed hands or not, it can be hard to think about going back to eHarmony or another dating site. It’s completely understandable: Romance scammers aren’t going to disappear tomorrow (though researchers are trying to automate the process of identifying them), and the idea of being fooled again can be almost too much to bear.
That doesn’t mean you should quit trying, any more than a bad meal means you should stop eating at restaurants. There’s a popular saying that “it’s only a mistake if you don’t learn from it,” and that certainly applies here.
The need for companionship, to love and be loved, is perhaps the deepest of all human needs; and dating sites are a useful tool in meeting that need. Just remember to treat it like any other tool: If you hurt yourself, learn the hazards and the corresponding safeguards before using it again.
Looking for a partner is an act of optimism and faith in yourself. Never let a scammer quell those permanently.
- DatingAdvice.com: 9 Facts to Know About eHarmony Founder Dr. Neil Clark Warren
- National Review: The Love Doctor
- BBB: Online Romance Scams
- BBB: Fall in Love, Go to Jail: BBB Report on How Some Romance Fraud Victims Become Money Mules
- eHarmony: Dating Safety Tips
- AARP: Romance Scams
- US Federal Trade Comimssion: What You Need to Know About Romance Scams
- Better Business Bureau: Scam Tracker
- Entrepreneur: Your Identity Could be Used in Online Dating Scams. Here’s How to Protect Yourself.
- Google Support: Search With an Image on Google
- US Federal Trade Commission: Romance Scams Take Record Dollars in 2020
- WEWS, NBC Green Bay: How Con Artists Swindle People Looking for Love Online
- eHarmony: How Do I Report a Suspicious Match, or Hateful/Offensive Behavior?
- US Federal Trade Commission: Report to Help Fight Fraud!
- arXiv: Automatically Dismantling Online Dating Fraud; Guillermo Suarez-Tangil, et al.; 30 May 2019