Do You Really Mean That? Detecting False Affection Online. By Wendy L. Patrick, J.D., Ph.D.

Do You Really Mean That? Detecting False Affection Online

How to sense when selective attention is a scam.


  • When distinguishing devotion from deception, virtual words matter.
  • Research reveals linguistic features distinctive of scammer profiles.
  • Scammers use first- and second-person pronouns strategically to lure victims.

Singles looking for love are delighted to meet potential suitors who appear to be both sincere and smitten. But when is focused flirtation merely a fraud? This question is particularly challenging when interacting online. Sure, online dating is popular and prevalent, but it can be potentially perilous if you don’t know enough about who you are talking to.

Source: Martine/Pixabay
Source: Martine/Pixabay

Fortunately, virtual red flags and green lights in terms of words and content can facilitate wise dating choices—if you are paying attention. We have all heard about the importance of verifying whether a prospective paramour is using actual photographs or publishing content stolen from the internet. But what about the words used? Sure enough, when it comes to revealing signs of devotion versus deception, virtual content matters. Research explains.

Semantics Can Separate Online Suitors from Scammers

Kam-Fong Lee et al. (2023) conducted a linguistic analysis of online romance dating scams as compared with general user profiles.[i] Using a selection of dating websites, they examined differences in the way language was used comparing scammer profiles with general user profiles. Their analysis revealed linguistic features distinctive of scammer profiles, using strategies to attract and engage victims through “intensively invoking love, romance and commitment, and conjuring hope of a future as a couple through pertinent use of lexical and function words.”

Lee et al. note that generally, deceptive communication on dating websites involves amplifying positive, desirable characteristics and traits through strategic presentation. In one study, they note that emails sent from scammer to victim included religious sentiments such as “God, God-fearing woman, Thank God for the grace and He (God)” (citing Tan and Yoong 2017). They also note that deceivers are likely to be more expressive and informal, including more typographical errors.

Regarding personalization, Lee et al. note that deceptive linguistic elements used in social media or email correspondence are less likely to use first-person pronouns (such as I or we) compared to other-person pronouns. They note that victim suspicion can be reduced through deceptive personalization using the second-person pronoun “you” to appear closer to the victim, which can increase compliance.

Lee et al. also recognize the appeal of sincerity and authenticity in soliciting victims online, strategically mentioning family members, co-workers, or others with positions of authority, to enhance the impression of legitimacy.

Practical Pointers

Drawing from both research and experience, there are a few points daters can consider when deciding whether they are really corresponding with that special someone, or someone else.

Too much too soon. When it comes to professions of love and devotion, there can be too much of a good thing. Healthy relationships develop slowly but surely.

Consider corroboration. Personal or professional affiliations can often be easily verified or dispelled. Details of where someone goes to church or is employed can substantiate whether someone really does worship or work according to the language they use.

Trust but verify. Modern online daters check references. As we would research a professional contact before applying for a job, we can research personal company the same way. It is time spent wisely to explore beyond what someone chooses to include within a dating profile.

Cross-platform posting. Some daters cross-post on multiple dating sites to maximize exposure. But make sure the facts match. Switching details regarding children, pets, age, or employment status depending on the dating site is a non-starter.

Successful socializing requires practiced perception, whether live or online. Most people you meet will be honest, authentic, potential companions or paramours. Remaining attuned to reading red flags allows you to avoid wasting time on dishonest posters, giving you more time to find that someone special.



What Happens When Someone Gives a Partner the Silent Treatment By Wendy Patrick JD Ph.D

Wendy Patrick, J.D., M.Div., Ph.D.
Prosecutor, public speaker, consultant

“Reprinted with permission from Wendy Patrick, Why Bad Looks Good”



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