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For as long as there's been Internet dating, there have been Internet-dating scammers. It's an updated version of an age-old problem: looking for love already leaves you emotionally vulnerable, but you must take care not to let that vulnerability bleed over into other realms of your life as well.

The most common online-dating scam involves a fake romantic persona who is always overseas — never anywhere on the North American continent, let alone someplace local enough that you can meet up in person. He or she claims to fall in love with you right away – assuming you can actually “fall in love” with somebody you've never met, or been in the same room with – then eventually asks you for money. (This person usually claims to have an impressive, upper-middle-class or better job – an engineer, a physician, an independently wealthy contractor or business owner – but there's always some complicated explanation why he claims to suffer a temporary cash shortfall requiring your help.)

Last summer, for example, a woman in Indiana lost $150,000 to a dating scammer before finally coming to her senses. This week we heard from a woman we'll call “Tina” who had a sadly typical story: she met and spoke to a man online, never in person, and then he asked her for money after claiming to fall in love with her. She wanted to take out a loan and send it to this man she thought she loved – but luckily, she had enough reservations to seek a second opinion first.

Here's what she said in her initial email:

Hi Jennifer
I found your name on Internet as I'm about to loan and transfer some money to a third party as requested by the person I chat with online.

We haven't met nor talk face to face (video conferencing). We voice chat for few times now.

We both feel connected and in love as you probably know why I'm helping this guy to help him because I feel for him and I think I love him.

I know what I'm about to do is stupid (my head tells me not to do it) but everything I asked this guy to produce to prove his identity he always pass and satisfy my curiosity. He said he is 49 years old, single ... never been married and no kids. He's good looking and will not have problem finding a girlfriend (which still this is a puzzle to me).

Recently he sent me a letter from Malaysian embassy awarding him the job to contain the avian flu virus in Malaysia. He was awarded a contract award certificate stating the job order number, including the 30% initial payment with 70% to be given upon completion of the project in Malaysia.

Because he need about 2mil US dollars and from the initial deposit from the embassy, he still needs US$400K ....

He sent me a copy of the check [for] the 30% down payment. He said his bank loaned him US$250 and he only have US$50K savings. I offered him to loan him US40K , he was grateful and he told me if I can send the money straight to the recruitment agency in Malaysia. He said he will need 100 workers to help him with his project to contain the Avian Flu Virus (as this is a sensitive project the Malaysian government required him to complete the work between 2 to 3 weeks).

I asked him to send me his flight details and again he's got a business class ticket to Malaysia .... I also asked him to provide me a copy of his driving license to prove his identity .... The picture he sent me (taken during thanksgiving and his final interview at the Washington, D.C. Malaysian Embassy) is same guy in his driving license.

Do you think I can trust him with these evidence and send the money to the Malaysia recruitment agency to help him find the workers for this avian flu project?

Is there any other documents I should ask him to provide me? I would really appreciate of you can get back to me before I send the money tomorrow .... Many thanks, Tina

No, no, a thousand times no. It's tempting to wax snarkastic in such circumstances – "If he wants 40K, all he has to do is sell the scrap metal he'll get after melting down all the alarm bells ringing throughout his ridiculous story" – but love (or proximity) can often blind people to things which seem spectacularly obvious from a distance. Since answering each individual question and pointing out the massive plot flaws in Tina's secondhand story would take too long, I sent this response instead:

Hello, Ms. [name redacted]. Thank you for writing. I hope you will not be foolish enough to send this scam artist any money at all, not so much as a penny or a dime. He's a lying thief — and you already know this!

What I am going to write sounds harsh, but unfortunately it is the truth: this man — assuming it really is a man, not a woman or even a whole team of scam artists working together — does not love you, nor respect you, nor give a damn about your well-being. There's a good chance he's laughing at you, even as I type this. He is not looking for a wife, a girlfriend, or even a casual sex partner; he's looking for money. You will never meet him face-to-face, and in reality, he looks nothing like the handsome photos you've seen.

As for his alleged sensitive-secret job fighting bird flu for the Malaysian government, his claims of needing money for that don't even pass the smell test: if the Malaysian government hired him to do a job, the government will pay money to HIM, not expect him to pay money to them — let alone borrow money from some foreign woman he's never met (and never will meet).

The documents he's shown you to "prove" his identity are all fakes. With Photoshop or similar software, it's not even difficult to make convincing-looking forgeries — especially if you're only seeing photos or e-copies of them, not receiving physical paper documents.

There is no point in your asking for additional documentation — he'll be able to provide convincing-looking fakes for anything. And he will always have convincing-sounding excuses for why he cannot meet you in person. Any money you send him will be gone forever — not to fight bird flu in Malaysia, but to enrich this liar and his wife or girlfriend.

I hope you do not send him any money at all, let alone $40,000. You'll never see any of that money again. If you want to help fight bird flu or otherwise benefit the people of Malaysia, there are some legitimate reputable charities which you can donate to, but please, do NOT give any money to this lying thief.

Take care,

Fortunately, Tina wrote back to say that she'd changed her mind about giving money to the scammer. Unfortunately, the scammer (whoever he or she is) remains at large, and probably has additional targets on the hook elsewhere.

Dear Ms Abel

Thank you for replying to be promptly. I am glad I found you before it's too late.

I was about to take a loan at the bank for him to help him complete in procuring and securing the workers he'll need in Malaysia

I think I am just going to disconnect my account.

Good idea. And Tina, along with anyone else who tries online dating, needs to always remember: if you've never so much as been in the same room with somebody, you definitely don't know them well enough to trust them with your money. Besides, True Love sure as hell never asks you to go into debt for their sake, or do anything else to hurt yourself.

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