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Hook, Line and Tinder: Scammers Love Dating Apps

The Tinder app is displayed on a smartphone. Franziska Kraufmann / Franziska Kraufmann/picture-alli

The popular dating app Tinder claims it has made more than 1 billion matches among its users since launching less than two years ago. Too bad not all of them are who they say they are.

Last month, Kristin Shotwell, 21, was walking home from class when her friend told her that he had seen her profile pop up on Tinder while visiting the University of Georgia in Athens.

There was one problem: Shotwell, a junior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, had been nowhere near Athens at the time and had never signed up for Tinder. Still, she shrugged it off, until her friends sent her a screen shot of a girl named "Kim."

“That is when it hit home, when I saw my face on a bio that had nothing to do with me,” Shotwell told NBC News.

Kim Fake Profile
Tinder

Romance scams are nothing new, but the rise of social media has made it even easier for modern criminals to stitch together believable personas from publicly available photos and bits of information. Shotwell said that the photos that her friends saw on Tinder were were images she had posted on Facebook, which she has since made private.

In 2012, online dating scams — at least the ones that were reported — cost Americans more than $55 million, according to statistics from the multi-agency Internet Crime Complaint Center.

Tinder is relatively new, so there are not that many statistics on how many fake profiles are floating around out there. But the company is extremely popular, boasting 10 million users, which is probably why IAC added another 10 percent to its majority stake in the company on Friday for a reported $500 million.

"Because there are so many people using the app, it’s a ripe target for scammers," Satnam Narang, security response manager at Symantec, told NBC News.

Fake Profiles 101

On Tinder, people either swipe left to reject someone or swipe right to accept them. If two people swipe right, they are matched and can message each other.

Scammers often use bots (software that can answer questions with automated responses) to initiate contact with people looking for a date. Some of them are easy to spot.

If a tan, half-naked model instantly responds to a match with “Heya ;)” it’s probably a bot. Others use photos taken from real social media accounts for a more believable profile.

Online dating sites surged during cold snap 0:55

Bots don’t exactly provide stimulating conversation, either. Asking one a simple question like, “What is 2 + 2?” is a good way of telling if the person you’re talking to is fake, or, at the very least, not very bright.

Still, every once in awhile, the deception works.

"People are suckers when it comes to relationships," Chris Camejo of NTT Com Security told NBC News. "Show a guy a picture of a pretty girl and he will do pretty much anything."

The Scam

Online dating scams usually fall into two camps, according to multiple experts. One is the high-volume, low-quality approach, consisting of automated scripts trying to get people to download malware or visit adult webcam sites. Last month, Tinder users reported fake profiles pointing them towards a mobile game called “Castle Clash.” The company behind the game denied involvement, while Tinder told NBC News in an email that it was "aware of the accounts in question and are taking the necessary steps to remove them."

The other strategy takes more time and effort, but can result in a huge pay day. Once someone is on the hook, a real person tries to reel them in and bleed them dry.

The technology might have changed, but many of the scams have been around for decades, like the classic where someone claims to be in the military overseas and then asks for money to fly back to the United States to see them in person.

There have not been any headline-grabbing scams involving Tinder. But on other online dating sites, people have been taken for thousands of dollars and allegedly convinced to do things like smuggle drugs into Argentina.

The people behind the scams come from all around the world, Darrell Foxworth, special agent for the FBI, told NBC News, including the United States. Last summer, two women in Colorado were arrested for allegedly being responsible for cheating 384 people out of $1 million. Usually, however, the perpetrators — sometimes working together from different countries — are never caught, leaving the victims to deal with the aftermath.

"The emotions that they display range from anger to severe sadness and depression, and often times they criticize themselves for being duped out of their money," Foxworth said. "It’s crushing emotionally and it can be crushing to them financially. It takes a toll."

So who is impersonating Shotwell, the college student? It could be someone catfishing, when people try to trick others into online relationships because they are lonely, bent on revenge or just plain bored. But catfishing cases are fairly rare, Camejo said, meaning it's likely someone looking to make a buck.

Shotwell has started a campaign to find out who stole her identity, but has not come up with any answers.

"This could happen to anybody," she said. "I’m not mad about it or anything. It’s kind of a freaky situation, but I’m trying to make the best of it."