There was a time when online dating carried a negative stigma. Over the years, however, using the Internet to find your future mate has become commonplace. One in ten Americans have used an online dating site or mobile dating app, according to a 2013 PEW Research study, and the largest group searching online for a potential mate are singles 50 and older. But unlike tech-savvy 20- and 30-something online daters, the plus-50s are less aware of the perils that lurk on the web.
One member of that group, who asked that her identity be withheld, is a recently divorced 51-year-old mother of three who told FoxNews.com how she met a man on a popular dating website – but that in a matter of a few days, their online courtship went offline.
The most important recommendation from the relationships experts to stay safe from digital heartbreak or financial ruin is to trust your gut.
“At first, we went out to public places, and it wasn’t until after he spent the weekend at my house that he revealed he was living on his friend’s couch,” she said. “This man was over 50. He made himself very comfortable, very fast. I broke it off. He stayed in my house and I didn’t want him to. He was smoking a joint in my bathroom. He lied about everything.
“After I cut him off, he wrote me a mean text that no one will want me if I’m stingy with money. I dodged a bullet. He wasn’t looking for love; he was looking to be taken care of financially.”
Looking back on the cyber courtship, she admitted she ignored red flags -- like the speed at which her suitor tried to move their relationship.
“I should have known. He went from zero to 90 too quickly,” she said. “I must have been vulnerable. I fell in. It was three weeks total. I would never online date again.”
Another web dater, who also asked that his identity be withheld, is a 52-year-old single man who told FoxNews.com how he clicked with a woman who claimed to be in her final year of medical school. Every day for about a month, they would talk for hours on the phone, constantly exchanging emails and photos. It wasn’t until they arranged an in-person meeting that his cyber-crush claimed emergency after emergency – each, she said, prevented her from traveling.
After a month of “emergencies”, Peter* became suspicious and researched his cyber crush. The woman he believed he was in a relationship with did not exist. When he confronted the woman, she admitted to stealing a friend’s Facebook pictures and creating a false identity because she did not feel her real persona was attractive enough.
Laurie Davis, author of “Love at First Click: The Ultimate Guide to Online Dating,” explained why the older population is at greater risk for being scammed.
“They are not reading the red flags because they’re not using Facebook and Twitter as a digital lifestyle. People who are scamming really prey on people who are vulnerable, and people over 50 are more vulnerable.”
The most common online dating frauds are catfishing – someone who uses social media to create false identities to deceive – and other financial scams.
“Financial scammers are motivated by money,” Davis said. “They try to create a connection with you in the hopes of eventually reaching deep into your bank account. Building a relationship with you is a financial investment for them.
“Catfishers are motivated by emotion. They look to fill a void and create an emotional outlet for themselves that doesn't exist or can't be revealed to others in their life,” Davis said.
Dr. Gail Saltz, clinical associate professor of psychiatry at The New York Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine, attributed it to lack of digital know-how.
“Frankly, these are the same things that 20-somethings are considering, but 50-somethings haven’t been read the riot act. Know that these scams are out there,” said Saltz, who is a former relationship expert for OurTime.com, the 50 and over singles site. “Being in love online is fallacy. You’re in love with a fantasy. The problem with the digital age is that you have fake friends/romances. Unless you’re spending significant time with this person in real life, it’s not real.”
Out of the 50-and-over demographic, women tend to be more targeted by online dating scammers. A February 2013 FBI press release points to women as the most preyed upon population of online daters.
“Their (cyber criminals) most common targets are women over 40, who are divorced, widowed, and/or disabled, but every age group and demographic is at risk,” the FBI reported.
Females tend to be more victimized due to what is both their greatness strength and weakness: empathy.
“Women are more vulnerable to scams,” said Angela Bermudo, relationship expert for SeekingArrangement.com. “People who are trying to commit fraud on people will go for women who are really looking to settle down, and have more empathy, so sometimes women will ignore red flags, whereas men at the age are wearier.”
Bermudo offered ways to protect one’s heart and wallet.
“When you’re in your 50s, you’re not as aware as the scams that are going on. There’s the mimicking scam. They’ll match you and then there’s an emergency -- they’ll ask for money. If anyone asks you to wire money in the first few weeks of knowing you, cut off communication. If someone asks you where you live, where you work, don’t give away that information readily.
Another tip from Bermudo to outsmart a scammer is to conduct a, “Backwards photo search into Google and it will tell you where that picture came from. A Google search will protect you. Only use dating websites that use background verification.”
The most important recommendation from the relationships experts to stay safe from digital heartbreak or financial ruin is to trust your gut:
If it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.
Diana Falzone is a FoxNews.com reporter. You can follow her on Twitter @dianafalzone.