How to spot an online dating scam

Popular Online Dating Scams and How to Avoid Them

Online dating is challenging enough, without having to worry about scammers. After all, you may be fretting that the photos you've posted don't show you at your best. You may be wondering why you don't get more "likes" or "smiles" from the men or women you're trying to attract. And you may be worried about how things will go, if you meet someone in person for a date.

But if you aren't a little concerned about online con artists, you should be.

As online dating has become more popular and mainstream – is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year – and more and more dating sites are cropping up, the risks of falling prey to greedy scammers is becoming greater.

Last year, the Better Business Bureau received over 4,000 complaints about dating sites; many gripes were about billing or other service-related issues, but there were enough protests about unsavory characters that the BBB put out a notice, warning consumers to be on the lookout for scammers. The Federal Trade Commission also frequently issues reports on online romance scams. There's even a name for what these con artists do: Catfishing – that is, posting a fake profile and hoping you'll take the bait.

So how can you tell the fakes from the flakes; the catfishes from the real catches? There are definitely some warning signs to be looking out for.

If someone wants your personal information too quickly. If you're writing each other back and forth over email, or you're talking on the phone, of course, you're going to want to share information about yourself. But don't share more than you're comfortable with, or before you feel the time is right, says Carole Brody Fleet, an Orange County, California-based speaker who has presented on online dating and has authored several books, including an upcoming title, "When Bad Things Happen to Good Women."

And Fleet notes that men should be wary of online scammers, too.

No matter your gender, "if someone is pushing you to reveal any personal information too soon, it should serve as a warning sign," Fleet says.

It can go the other way as well. If your potential suitor brings up his or her own personal information too soon, such as discussing his or her own financial situation "in any way, shape or form – that warning sign just became a lot bigger," Fleet adds.

And, of course, if you're embarking on a relationship with anyone, with severe money troubles, good person or not, ask yourself: Is this really what you want? If your potential suitor is talking this soon about how they're struggling to pay the rent, don't be surprised if your new boyfriend or girlfriend and his or her kids are asking in a few months if they can move in with you.

If they can't meet with you soon. Obviously don't meet too soon. That could spell trouble for either gender if someone, for instance, wants to meet you a few hours after you begin a dialogue.

But as Fleet puts it, there is a fairly standard way people date online: " Let's say that you have met someone online. You have emailed, you have talked on the phone and things appear to be escalating in the right direction – but for some reason, they can never seem to find time to actually meet in person or they constantly schedule and cancel dates. This is an enormous red flag."

But some con artists are pretty cunning in finding reasons for not meeting.

Heather Wilkerson can tell you that. Wilkerson, 31, works for a software company and lives in Des Moines, Iowa. She started using online dating sites more than a year ago.

"I shaved my head to raise money for kids cancer research," says Wilkerson, who earned over $2,000 and donated 23 inches of hair. "I joined online dating because I could easily explain my baldness right then and there. In person, men wouldn't even look at me. They thought I was sick, or Britney Spears-type crazy."

More from U.S. News:
11 money tips for older adults
9 red flags that could trigger a tax audit
10 ideas for dating on a budget

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