Dangers of Meeting People Online
By Laurel Storm
"On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog," quips one dog to another in the famous "New Yorker" cartoon by Peter Steiner. The pithy statement encapsulates the enjoyable side of Internet anonymity -- but says nothing about its dangers. The very same anonymity that fosters free expression also creates an environment where scammers, sexual predators and other unsavory characters can thrive.
Scammers and Con Men
Meeting people on the Internet, especially through online dating, is touted as an antidote to loneliness. Something that isn't often mentioned, however, is that scammers and con men also frequent community and dating websites specifically to take advantage of that loneliness.
A scammer will choose one or more targets and slowly work to build his victims' trust. He will seem like the perfect gentleman -- keeping in touch, sending gifts, making the victim feel special -- until one day he asks for money, promising to repay it as soon as possible. The reason varies, and often a heart-rending story is attached, such as a medical emergency he doesn't have the funds to cover, a death in the family or a robbery. Although an unbiased, outside observer would see this as a reason to suspect something, by then the victim trusts the scammer and so the money is sent. Over time, there are more and more emergencies, more reasons for the scammer to ask for money, and soon enough the victim is broke, possibly even in debt. At that point, the scammer breaks off all contact and disappears.
According to Nickolas Savage, assistant section chief of the FBI's Cyber Division, the average loss for a victim of such a scheme is between $15,000 and $20,000, although there have been cases in which scammers extracted hundreds of thousands of dollars from their victims, with one con man managing to obtain a successful executive's entire life savings -- almost a million dollars -- before being arrested in 2012.
Blackmailers and Extortionists
Keeping private information private seems like common sense, but when chatting online some people get caught up in the moment and forget that they are potentially becoming vulnerable to a vicious cycle of blackmail and extortion. After a victim shares personal information or, worse, compromising photos with a blackmailer, he will threaten her with sharing it publicly and demand money or more compromising material. Alternatively, he will post the information on a website and demand money to remove it. Savage calls this "sextortion," as the extorted material often contains sexual content.
Canny burglars have turned to the Internet to get information on potential marks. Experienced and casual Internet users alike should beware of sharing too much information with an online friend, as he may be nothing more than a thief wanting to find out his victim's home address, day-to-day schedule and upcoming holiday plans. Once they know the house will be left empty for an extended period of time, the burglars strike; people who live in an isolated location may be especially at risk.
Some online liars are not interested in stealing money or possessions -- they simply want their victim's love, concern and support as they struggle with an illness they don't actually have, a behavior termed "Munchausen by Internet." Such people might join online support groups for the disease they are pretending to have or simply befriend you individually; when their lies are exposed, they may apologize, lash out, or simply disappear only to reappear elsewhere doing the same thing.
Although television programs such as Chris Hansen's "To Catch a Predator" Dateline series have widely publicized the risks for children, adults are also vulnerable to online sexual predators. A predator who targets adults may sign up for dating websites, many of which don't conduct background checks for prior criminal convictions, or simply lurk around large online communities; once he has found a suitable victim, he spends some time building up her trust, arranges a meeting and then strikes.
- FBI: Looking for Love? Beware of Online Dating Scams
- FBI: Sweetheart Scams
- FBI: Online Dating Dangers
- The Daily Mail: Gospel Singer Posed as U.S. Fighter Pilot, Oil Executive and Grieving Widower on Match.com to Steal £120,000 From Lonely Women
- The Daily Mail: Fleeced by the Goldman Sachs Fantasist
- FBI: Special Agent Nickolas Savage Discusses ‘Sextortion’
- FBI: Cyber Alerts for Parents & Kids -- Tip #2: Beware of ‘Sextortion’
- The Stranger: The Lying Disease
- The New York Times: Faking Pain and Suffering In Internet Support Groups
Laurel Storm has been writing since 2001, and helping people with technology for far longer than that. Some of her articles have been published in "Messaggero dei Ragazzi", an Italian magazine for teenagers. She holds a Master of Arts in writing for television and new media from the University of Turin.