By: Jon Jekel
Jack fell in love with Celestine the first time he saw her. It was two months after the combustion of an 8-year relationship. Now 31, Jack had forgotten how to meet women. He attended the wedding of a fraternity brother in Cleveland. Turns out, Casey met Jeannine on a dating website. Jack started a profile and found Celestine.
They exchanged emails, text messages; even phone calls. “I’ve never felt so close to someone,” she said. Jack agreed.
But Celestine’s mother was sick. Pancreatic cancer. Her condition got worse by the day. Mom had no insurance. She couldn’t afford her medication. Jack sent her $5,000 via Western Union.
The next day, Celestine’s profile vanished. Emails were rejected. Phone calls went unanswered.
Online dating sites provide unique opportunities for romance. Before the first date, you know who is a militant vegan, a mother of two, a cat person. And for every swindle and con, there are ten successful relationships. In the past year alone, the author has been invited to four weddings that otherwise never would have transpired.
Yet there is this looming danger, a fear that you will expose your essence in digital form and have your money sweet-talked away by a girl in a telemarketing assembly line. So what do these websites do to prevent well-meaning introverts from losing their shirts without any of the benefits?
Both eHarmony and Match, the two largest dating sites in the U.S., employ full-time fraud-prevention teams. Using a combination of high technology and good-old-fashioned intuition, the team discovers and disables accounts. In addition, they conduct background checks on new members to catch the sexual deviants and grifters.
According to an industry insider, online-dating sites typically use three methods to detect scammers. First, they employ full-time teams of trained professionals scour profiles for red flags. If Jane Scott’s image is strangely similar to a recent Sports Illustrated swimsuit spread, they may disable the profile. As a second layer, sites rely on users to flag or report suspicious conduct. Lastly, many sites use NSA-style technology to scan messages for buzzwords. Fortunately, there are very few legitimate reasons to “wire money” in that context.
Yet according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, thousands of complaints are filed each year alleging fraud on online dating sites. A study published in October 2012 in Glamour estimated that one in ten profiles were fraudulent. The study was published just one month after a U.S. District Court judge Sam Lindsay dismissed a class-action suit against Match.com alleging that over half of the profiles were fraudulent.
Many users have eschewed the big dating networks for sites with more exclusivity. Beri Meric, co-founder of IvyDate.com and DateHarvardsq.com analogized it to the real world. “[P]eople are looking to go to the right neighborhood to meet the right people.” On Meric’s sites, a full-time membership committee reviews every profile and photo submitted, looking for red flags like celebrity photos or poor translation.
And who are the victims? Do they also help exiled Nigerian princes recover their fortunes? Unfortunately, the victims are normal people who succumb to what psychologists refer to as the “halo effect.” They find something they like about someone, and overlook all of the shortcomings. Celestine was interesting and beautiful.
Yet, there is still another side to this drama. Thousands of people around the world, celebrities and soldiers alike, have their pictures, their stories, their identities stolen to create narratives. Recently, a “model” in Miami filed a suit against Match seeking $1.5 billion in compensatory and punitive damages. Although there is no chance she will recover that amount, it does highlight the very real, perceptible damage that can occur when someone’s identity is used as a tool for fraud.
For many in the legal community, online dating provides the only realistic way to balance a demanding work schedule and the challenges of intimacy. As was recounted earlier, the author has been invited to four Match weddings in the past year alone. There were no Russian accents, and no dying mothers. Just remember, until you meet that special someone in person, do not pay for her mother’s chemo.
 Based on a true story, though names, physical descriptions, and favorite bands were changed to suit the author.
 Interestingly, the woman, one Yuliana Avalos, a “part-time model,” has been accused recently of being complicit in various online scams of her own. http://www.miaminewtimes.com/2013-12-12/news/miami-model-yuliana-avalos-sued-match-com-for-1-5-billion-but-now-she-s-taking-criticism-too/full/.