It used to be parents who worried about their children being picked up by unsavory types in bars and other seedy hang-outs. Now children are worried about their parents being hoodwinked by the scam artists who haunt online dating sites.
"I am a bit past age 50 --- well educated lady; (I thought that I was so smart that it couldn't happen to me --- my college education is no match for a professional criminal)," said one of a seemingly endless stream of scam victims who have written to ConsumerAffairs after losing thousands of dollars.
Like many of the victims, Ellen (not her real name) lost money she could ill afford to lose. She sent a complaint to Match.com and was surprised to find that, despite her action, the perpetrator was still in business.
"I am due to have surgery which will keep me without salary for at least 3 months if all goes well. My children's tuition need to be paid; I need to have at least $20,000 to cover bills etc during my recovery," she said. "I have nothing left and this sociopath is back on Match.com; same face, different dress. How could they have missed him when he was just reported?"
Up close and impersonal
The official explanation for why seniors so often fall victim to dating and other scams is that they are trusting, lonely and perhaps naive. But after years of reading emails from people like Ellen, it becomes clear that they also often lack an understanding of just how impersonal large websites are and how difficult it is to track down scam artists who operate internationally.
When today's seniors were young adults, social media didn't exist and the content on major media outlets was tightly controlled by editors and directors. It was relatively easy to call someone at the local TV station or newspaper and get a response to a complaint about a news story or an advertisement. Broadcasters lived in fear of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and newspapers valued their reputation as upright and respectable sources of information.
Today's major websites do little or noting to filter content and, rather than taking pride in their role as publishers, see themselves as mere pipelines through which sludge flows onto the Internet.
Google has a news page that is totally assembled by an algorithm (and looks like it). Reddit recently ousted its CEO for, among other things, trying to crack down on harassment and racist posts. Facebook is a playground for phony schemes.
The people who used to be regarded as cranks now get virtual badges for frequent postings. This is not your father's evening paper.
Submissions not reviewed
In this atmosphere, where sites are flooded with thousands of submissions a day, it is impossible for anyone to read and review each submission in advance. Similarly, it's nearly impossible to read all the emails from readers commenting on and complaining about other submissions.
This makes it easy for a 30-year-old male in, say, Lagos to present himself as an accomplished 65-year-old concert pianist who through no fault of his own is stranded in the Johannesburg airport and needs $27,345 to transport himself and his piano back to Brooklyn.
That's an obviously outlandish situation but is not much more outlandish than the scams that are transacted each day, with tragic results.
"I am a widow, 76 years old, and I have been scammed via Match.com, out of everything I own. I am still working as a church secretary and I am to the point I need to stop working and I have no way to survive because of these criminals from that web site. It has cost me everything I have worked for my whole life and I have no resources left. I will lose my home and will be destitute," said Janet, a Virginia woman who wrote to us recently and whose story was featured recently in The New York Times.
What not to do
Is there anything consumers can do to avoid being brutally scammed by online charlatans? Unfortunately, like a fire that burns your house down, there's not much you can do after it's happened.
Many victims waste a lot of time trying to track down the miscreant themselves. It's almost impossible to do, of course, and trying to "out" the con artist is equally difficult since they can simply change their user name, swipe someone else's photo and be back in business in no time.
At the most basic level, getting anyone to even notice a complaint about a single user is extremely difficult.
An emailed complaint to a dating website is mixed in with thousands of other emails, most of them spam. Filters that look for specific words may snag a few but many of these emails will go unread.
Likewise, complaints to police departments accomplish little since local law enforcement agencies lack the resources to go after bandits operating outside their jurisdiction and, in many cases, outside the country.
"I sent them names of the contacts at the banks I sent the money through hoping they would be interested in at least nabbing some of the people in the rings in this country," one 70-year-old dating scam victim told us. "I tried to go our local office for an interview. They said they get several calls a day about this kind of thing just in my city of 100,000."
Many scammed consumers think the law will make them whole.
"My question to you is: Can you please recommend an attorney that would help me recover my losses because of this crime?" said one senior.
"These rings are very shrewd and sophisticated. If there is a class action suit, I would like to be part of it," said a Florida woman who said she has lost $60,000 to a dating site scammer.
The obvious problem with this approach is that most dating site scammers are overseas and beyond the reach of U.S. courts. Even if they were not, private legal action would be prohibitively expensive, greatly exceeding the victims' losses.
Class action suits against dating sites are not likely to produce large settlements for individual victims. That's simply not how class actions work. In the unlikely event that such a suit succeeded, the payout to individuals would be unlikely to amount to more than a token.
Simply put, the scale of the problem is huge but the perpetrators are mostly individuals or, at the most, small groups. It's like trying to enforce speed limits -- so many people break the law that they overwhelm enforcement efforts. Add in the overseas element and the situation becomes even more challenging.
The one agency that tries to track down and prosecute cyber criminals is the FBI. Its Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) is the best place for consumers to file complaints but no one should hope for immediate action, since there's also the little problem of organized attacks on government computer systems that tends to take precedence over individual complaints.
Of course, posting reviews on sites like ours helps alert others to the danger but, all too often, consumers don't look at reviews until after they've made a purchase or sent their life's savings to a scam artist.
Unprotected verbal intercourse
There is, of course, a fool-proof means of prevention, and it's the same one that used to be preached at today's seniors when they were younger: Just say "no." Abstain from unprotected verbal intercourse with strangers on the Internet. It's a lot easier to prevent unwanted consequences than to reverse them.
Not to sound unsympathetic but while being lonely isn't fun, it beats being lonely and broke. And fortunately, there are plenty of ways to solve the loneliness problem without throwing money at strangers or going to meat-hook bars or online dating sites. They include:
Political campaigns. Want to meet like-minded people? Volunteer to stuff envelopes and work the phone banks for your favorite politicians. You'll meet like-minded people, real ones.
Churches, etc. Theology aside, organized religions serve an important social purpose. Pick one whose climate approximates your own and dive in. For those of little faith, non-doctrinal denominations like the Unitarian Universalists offer just about everything except dogma.
Volunteer groups. You can work with the poor, with children, with recent immigrants, with the disabled, with other seniors or with animals. There are hundreds of non-profit and government agencies looking for volunteers.
Part-time jobs. You may be a retired rocket scientist but that doesn't mean you can't work at Walmart a few days a week. Or drive for Uber, for that matter.
See that switch?
Above all, remember -- as our Jennifer Abel frequently says -- you can't fall in love with someone you've never met. If the man of your dreams tells you he needs $50,000 to fly from Estonia into your arms, take a look at your computer; you'll see a little switch that toggles your machine on and off.
Turn it off and walk away. It works everytime, no matter what your operating system may be.