True Love or Scam Likely: How to Detect Fake Profiles

Young woman having online date with fake boyfriend. Concept of internet fraud

Key Points

  • Every year, romance scams cause $47 million to $1 billion worth of losses worldwide. 

  • Knowing how to detect fake profiles and protect yourself from catfishing is essential when it comes to online dating.

  • Photos that lack variety, messages with a stilted tone, and requests for money are all common red flags in the online world. 

  • Once you’ve learned how to detect fake profiles, alert the website moderator immediately to begin the process of recouping any losses. 

It’s a tale as old as time. Girl meets Boy online. Boy is charming, successful, and complimentary. He’s never met anyone like Girl, he’s falling in love with Girl — and by the way, can Girl please wire him $700 in Bitcoin ASAP? This is why learning how to detect fake profiles is essential to online dating.

Fake profiles are the scourge of online relationships. Statistics suggest that 10 percent of all dating profiles are fabricated. This means that in every batch of 10 suitable bachelors, there lurks one snake in disguise. Yikes! Your cyber safety depends on you knowing how to detect fake profiles.

Read on to learn how to spot the telltale signs of a bogus profile, protect yourself from catfishing, and fight back if you are the victim of a cyber attack. 

What Is a Romance Scam?

Romance scams are online interactions where people create fake profiles with the intention of extorting information or money. In these interactions, the scammer tries to establish a relationship with you as quickly as possible. They attempt to gain your trust with flattery before swooping in and asking for what they want.

Romance scammers even go so far as proposing marriage, another attempt to manufacture quick intimacy. It’s estimated that romance scams cause losses anywhere from $47 million to $1 billion.  

What Is Catfishing?

Catfishing happens when someone pretends to be a person they're not online.

This shady behavior gets its name from an apocryphal story involving cod being shipped with catfish. Merchants allegedly found that the cod arrived healthier when it shared a container with a predator fish during transit. In simpler terms, having a natural enemy close kept the cod more alert.

In the digital world, a catfish finds vulnerable people and preys on them. Sometimes the catfish knows their target personally. Other times the catfish throws out bait and waits for the right person to nibble. They look for people who are lonely and willing to ignore red flags in the name of making a connection.

Catfish are either an individual or a group of people making a coordinated attack. Oftentimes, their profiles appear just a little too good to be true.

Person receives unknown phone call

Why Would Someone Scam You?

Like most things in life, the answer comes down to money and ego. 

Online hustlers want access to your personal and financial information to use for their own gain. A common hack is to send a link in a message. Once clicked on, this link rolls out the welcome mat to your computer and all of its data.

A sweet-talking scammer cajoles personal information from you to help them answer security questions or guess your passwords. They might even straight up ask for money, playing on your heartstrings by feeding you tales of love or dire emergencies. 

Another reason for scamming is a self-esteem boost. Many people catfish because it makes them feel good to be a different person for a while. This new avatar is more attractive, wealthier, or just has better game. Either way, this escapism comes with a price.

Sometimes these perpetrators pick a specific victim and string them along with the hopes of embarrassing them or breaking their heart. It’s a form of cyberbullying at best and the start of a blackmail plot at worst.

Which Websites Have the Highest Number of Fake Profiles?

It's hard to say for sure which websites scammers thrive in, as the digital world evolves so quickly.

In general, apps with higher bars to entry tend to be more secure. Look for apps that have ways of verifying their user's identities. Look into what criteria the moderator uses to judge authenticity. This helps you figure out if their system is thorough or if just anyone gets verified.

Apps that cost money to use also weed out casual scammers. Before choosing which app is right for you, browse each platform's security features. Then do a cursory Google search using the terms "(app name) scam (current year)." This yields a lot of up-to-date information on how that app protects its users.

Fake Profile Red Flags

Not all fake profiles are alike but if the person you’re talking to has one or more of the traits from this list, it’s your sign to block immediately. 

Suspicious Photos

A picture is worth a thousand words when it comes to identifying fraud. Assess the number of pictures on your would-be date’s profile. If they have only one or two on an app that allows much more, it’s your cue to turn your BS detector up. This is particularly true if those pictures are poor quality or don’t show the person’s face. 

It’s also a bad sign if the person only has super high-quality pictures. If someone looks too good to be true, they probably are! That’s not to say that all professionally looking photos are red flags. Just be wary if someone’s profile looks like a collection of stock images. Or worse, a green screen! 

Use the “reverse image search” feature to see if the photos used on the potential romeo’s profile show up anywhere else online. Simply go to and click on the camera icon in the search bar. This shows you the source of the original image. If you’re talking to a fabricated profile, there’s a good chance they stole the image from somewhere else.

There have even been cases where the catfish steals someone else's profile pic and uses it as their own. The person in the photo doesn't even know they're abetting a scam! Use the reverse image trick from above and see if anyone's using your photo somewhere without your permission.

An ideal profile includes a full body shot, a well-lit headshot, a photo with a bit of personality, and a bonus “dealer’s choice” pic. Profiles need to strike the Goldilocks balance — avoiding overly produced images or overly casual ones in favor of pics that are just right.

Check out this guide for more in-depth info on what a green light profile really looks like. 

A Voice Without a Human Touch

As artificial intelligence expands, there are more and more ways for scammers to outsource entire conversations to bots. These bots scan the internet for ways to imitate human speech patterns but — thankfully — they have a long way to go.

It's usually easy to tell if a message seems overly stilted or technical. The bot uses terms of endearment like “dear” or “my friend” rather than your real name. Avoiding contractions (for example, “cannot” instead of “can’t”) is another red flag. The phrasing might be clunky or unnatural sounding. Often this is because bots are programmed by someone who is auto-translating another language to English.

Bots are able to handle surface-level questions — “How are you today?” “What are you looking for?” However, the bot gets stumped if you get a little more complex — “What was the first concert that made you feel alive?” or “When’s the last time you laughed out loud?” They’re great at grift but horrible at riffing.  

This automation is apparent in the way bots talk about themselves too. A well-rounded profile run by a human has more info about their interests or hobbies. Here’s a quick guide to things that are major green flags in a bio.  Conversely, a catfish profile might just focus on flashy displays of wealth or double down on descriptions of the person they want to attract. 

Amanda McPherson, a trained therapist and life coach, has this to say about how authentic conversations should sound: “If everything they tell you about themselves and their life sounds perfect – sorry darlin’, but it’s probably too good to be true. Honest, genuine people have real conversations and can answer your questions directly because they have nothing to hide.” 

Person enters credit card information into mobile device

Flirting That Crosses a Line

Dating apps are made for flirting. Keep in mind, though, there’s a difference between cheeky banter and someone who wants to get down and dirty right away. If a profile’s opening gambit is hypersexual, your reaction should be less “come hither” and more “back off!” Oftentimes bots or scammers come on strong in the hopes that they get you so riled up that you stop using good judgment. It's the internet equivalent of beer goggles. 

Obviously, this advice is harder to parse if you’re on hookup-specific apps. Still, there’s a difference between a message that sounds like it’s dirty talking with you specifically and one that’s just a form letter sent out to everyone. Use your best judgment to discern whether it’s good clean smut or a filthy scam.  

Sneaky Links to Other Sites

Swindlers often try to get their marks to take the conversation to a website that isn’t very secure. It’s the digital version of a shady guy wanting to go camping on a first date. Just say no! 

Often these links include malware that effectively tanks your computer or hacks your personal info. The links are sent under the guise of showing you more pictures and videos of the catfish in question. Never click on these links. They’re either trying to get you to download malware or they’re a gateway to a website where the scammer asks you to pay for the privilege of seeing the images. 

No Social Media Savvy

It’s natural to want to show more pictures of yourself than a dating app allows. A great way to do this is by linking another social media account to your profile. If someone you’re talking to doesn’t include links to their social media in their bio, it's often a red flag.

Unplugging is great, but it’s fairly uncommon to have absolutely zero digital footprint. Searching someone’s name on apps like Instagram or Twitter often yields results if you’re dealing with a legit person. Still, linking their profile is not enough. Take a closer look to discern if they’re the real deal. 

When Scanning Someone’s Linked Social Media Account, Consider a Few Factors: 

  • Does this person have a lot of friends or followers?

  • Are those friends and followers real people or bots?

  • Are friends commenting on their photos?

  • Have the pictures been updated recently?

  • How far back does this profile go?

It’s unlikely that someone looking to make a quick buck takes the time to make a fake Instagram account with all of these things on it. Check for both the quantity and quality of posts and images before deciding if someone is authentic. 

Hand works mobile phone in dark room

A Money Grab 

In most cases, dating and relationships don’t involve an instant exchange of money. There’s a huge difference between treating someone to dinner on a first date and sending cash sight unseen. Romance scams usually entail chatting with someone for a while, gaining their trust, and leveraging that bond to get a payout. 

These requests usually have some emotional manipulation baked in too. They involve asking for money to treat a sick family member, bail themselves out of a scary situation, or even assist with immigration transactions. This way you come off as heartless if you refuse to help.

Internet gaslighting at its finest! 

Money requests are also framed as chivalrous acts. The person on the other side of the message is very interested in paying for you to fly out to meet them but they need a loan first. If someone feeds you a line like this, they’re a crook, not a gentleman. 

Avoid taking investment advice from dating app conversations as well. You’re here for pleasure, not business. A common grift is to promise an unwitting victim a huge return on investment if they only put up some cash. Only take advice like this from people you’ve met IRL and trust. 

Sometimes the fake profile isn’t even asking for traditional currency. Several romance scams were reported where the victim was asked to pay in gift cards or cryptocurrency. These payment methods are harder to track after the fact which makes for a clean getaway on the part of the con artist. 

A Refusal to Meet IRL

The goal of most dating apps is to eventually take the connection offline. Unless you’re on an app that specifically touts itself as chat only, it’s a red flag if someone won’t meet up. 

Some dating websites cater to creating matches between people with jobs that make it hard to meet up. Examples include longshoremen, oil rig workers, miners, etc. Scammers often use this excuse to their advantage and troll sites like these for victims.

If you happen to be on a site like this and you encounter someone who gives you a bad feeling, turn to Google. Using a search term like “longshoreman scam” directs you to news reports or articles detailing frauds in those professions. Take a sec to see if your new bae matches any of those profiles. 

If you’re balking at asking someone out IRL, here’s a middle step. Suggest a video messaging date via an app like Zoom or Facetime. Seeing someone’s face and communicating with them in real-time is a terrific way to visually verify their identity.

Shady operators refuse this step in favor of sending you a premade video. Don’t let this fool you. Insist that you have a real-time face-to-face conversation or a safe in-person date. If they balk, it tells you everything you need to know about their real intentions. 

Fishing hook pierces series of credit cards on keyboard

What Should You Do Once You’ve Spotted a Fake Profile?

The first step after successfully detecting foul play is to screenshot the person’s profile and messages. You never know when evidence of these interactions may come in handy. File them away just in case. 

Next, cease all contact. Don't tell the person you think they’re suspicious, just ghost and run. Block them on all platforms and from your phone. The sooner you cut off any means of communication, the better! 

While you’re at it, take a sec to double-secure all your online accounts. There’s never been a better time to freshen up some old passwords or enable multi-factor authentication. Make sure that you have all your devices set to automatically update. A device with out-of-date software is much more vulnerable to hacking than a regularly updated one. Don't ignore those pesky update reminders.

Finally, report the profile to the moderator of the app or website you’re using. It’s in the platform’s best interest to weed out wolves and they have procedures in place to mitigate harm. If the moderators refuse to remove that user from the platform, that’s your cue to leave. You deserve to find love in a place that takes your safety seriously. 

Don't be afraid to share the story with your social circle. Spreading awareness about a specific fake profile makes it less likely that their tricks work on anyone else in the future. Plus, it makes for a great happy hour anecdote. 

Next Steps If You’ve Been Scammed

Firstly, take a beat and take a breath. This is a scary situation that hundreds of people get themselves into every day. The internet is a huge expanding ecosystem and no one was born knowing how to navigate it perfectly. Everyone makes mistakes. 

Follow the steps laid out in the section above — screenshot, cut off contact, report. If part of the scam involved sending money to the fake profile, call your bank as soon as possible and explain the situation clearly. Provide those screenshots you took earlier. The bank will likely issue a refund.

If the scammer was paid by gift cards or crypto, contact the place where you bought them. Like dating apps, these institutions have several checks and balances for dealing with situations like these. 

Consider reporting the fake profile to the Federal Trade Commission. They use your information to report the issue to relevant law enforcement. Sharing your story could bring down one imposter profile or even a whole network of them. 

There are also peer support groups for people who were victimized by scammers. These groups improve your cyber security savvy and remind you that you're not alone. Swindlers often prey on people who they sense lack a strong community behind them, so reaching out to others for support is your best bet to avoiding scams.

Words "System Hacked" float above hands on a keyboard

Have an Open Heart and a Sharp Mind 

None of this information should scare you out of the online dating world completely. No risk, no reward, right? Being aware of the not-so-nice sides of dating apps makes you that much more of a savvy swiper. 

A good rule of thumb is to take things slow. The rush of infatuation is real, but any relationship worth investing in doesn't happen overnight. Don't let anyone pressure you into moving things at a rapid pace. That kind of pressure is a common technique for scammers. Take time to be thorough in your analysis of someone's character based on how they present themselves online.

Talk to trusted friends throughout the process. Really get to know the person on the other side of the screen. Taking your precious time runs out the clock on impatient scammers or anyone else who isn't interested in making your life better and truly getting to know you. You're in no hurry. What's meant for you is always worth the wait.

You deserve a dating experience that makes you feel safe, happy, and empowered. You’re a catch, and your gut instinct is worth listening to. Hone your critical thinking skills, and when in doubt, reach out to your community or therapist. Two — or more — heads are always better than one. 

Armed with these tools, you're well-equipped to screen potential matches for authentic connections and kick swindlers to the curb.

Here’s to dating safely, scam-free, and making sure there’s not plenty of catfish in the sea!

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