Ask a single American city-dweller about deception in the world of online dating and you'll hear a litany of familiar, if not particularly serious, complaints: exaggerated heights, photos so flattering they border on fantasy, and horndog men who overstate their desire to settle down.
Ask their Chinese counterpart, and you're likely to hear a much wilder story.
A new study, "Quit Playing Games With My Heart: Understanding Online Dating Scams," a collaboration between University College London and Jiayuan, China's largest dating site, revealed the unbelievably creative and involved cons that plague online dating there.
The authors of the study analyzed more than 500,000 profiles, drawn from Jiayuan's 100 million users, which the site's employees had flagged as scam accounts. And while by far the most popular of these scams — fake profiles promoting escort services — will be familiar to anyone who uses Tinder in the U.S., the remaining scams could be drawn straight from The Sting or The Grifters.
The most ingenious of the Jiayuan scams starts when the owner of a fancy restaurant hires an attractive woman, who then makes a dating profile. The woman then contacts a lonely heart over Jiayuan and convinces him to take her on a date to the expensive restaurant, where she runs up an enormous tab. According to the study, these dates can cost anywhere from $100 to $2,000. Afterward, of course, the bilked bachelor never hears from his date again.
"It's sort of a perfect scam," said Gianluca Stringhini, one of the study's co-authors, "because the person would never realize that they've been scammed."
Indeed, as the study points out, the mark may have even had a good time while getting grifted. It's also, according to Stringhini, not strictly illegal, so the conspirators don't put themselves at much of a risk.
And a lot of guys have been grifted: The study identified 57,218 accounts associated with the "date for profit" scam.
While the pricey restaurant scam mostly targets men, the so-called "swindler" scams more often take advantage of unsuspecting women. For example, in the fascinating "flower basket" con, a profile representing an "attractive mid-aged man" contacts a middle-aged woman and, over time, develops an entirely online romantic relationship with her. After some time, the grifter "will start implying that he wants to marry the victim" and will claim his parents require a gesture of good will: an incredibly expensive (up to $20,000) flower basket as a lucky charm for a fictional new store. The grifter directs his victim to a local florist — who he knows — and then they share the profit.
And potential victims are lining up for many of these cons: 20% percent of the "swindler" profiles received at least 70 message before being deleted.
Because the "flower basket" scam is so culturally specific, it may be tempting to isolate it as a Chinese phenomenon. That would be a mistake, according to Stringhini. While the cultural particulars of online dating scams may change, the social and emotional forces at play are universal.
Said Stringhini, "In principle there's no reason it couldn't happen in the U.S." Maybe it already is.
Joe Bernstein is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Bernstein reports on and writes about the gaming industry and web culture.
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