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As online dating scams boom, Autistic people are more likely to be victims, especially in rural areas like the Four Corners

The Federal Communications Commission voted to propose its first Internet privacy rules and to expand a phone subsidy program to cover Internet access.

Online dating is a reality these days, but at the same time, scams in the online dating world are costing Americans more money than ever. For Autistic people, the risk of falling victim to these scams may be especially high. And, as KSJD's Sofia Stuart-Rasi reports, that's especially true for autistic people living in rural areas like the Four Corners region

Hannah Beller is Autistic and lives in the Four Corners. She’s been online dating for many years in the region and has a handful of dating stories – some good and some not so good.

“When I do find someone, it's a way wrong person,” says Beller.

Beller says a lot of her bad experiences are from individuals who don’t understand what Autistic people are really like.

“It's a different thing than what they're aware of or comfortable with. And so they don't know how to interact with it or I don’t know,” says Beller.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, Autism spectrum disorder is a lifelong complex developmental condition that affects each individual differently. But at the end of the day, the condition is just a label. And that label comes with a stigma behind it.

Beller says for many years she chose to not share that she's Autistic.

In the past, some romantic partners left her when they learned about her diagnosis. And others put her in dangerous situations or tried to manipulate her for financial profit. And on top of it all, Beller says there just aren't a lot of options living in a rural area like the Four Corners.

“It's just been really frustrating. I almost just gave up,” says Beller.

Hannah Beller and her Partner
Hannah Beller
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Hannah Beller and her current partner.

Beller is not alone. The number of Romance Scams across the country hit a record high in 2021.

New data from the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Bureau of Investigation show that reported losses to romance scams jumped 80% between 20-20 and 20-21. The data also shows that Americans have lost almost 1 and a half billion dollars to these scams in the last five years.

Online romance scams often include people using pictures stolen from around the internet to build false personas that seem just real enough to be true. The scammer always has a reason why they can’t meet in person and then will eventually ask for money.

Hazel Heckers is a Victim Assistance Coordinator with the Colorado Bureau of Investigation.

“They go to school for it – they clock in and out. And they're part of an organized crime ring,” says Heckers.

Heckers says there are sometimes multiple people working on a single fake profile. She also says Romance Scammers often target vulnerable victims – and a lot of those victims end up being disabled people who live in rural areas where they don’t have much community support. But online dating is a reality these days.

“There's no reason that you can't use the tools in front of you, millions of people a year, find a good person, and have lasting relationships online … It's just a matter of knowing how to read the profiles and doing a little checking,” says Heckers.

Heckers says a google image search can go a long way into identifying fake profiles. It’s also a good idea to include in a dating profile that meeting in person is a must – in order to help weed out a lot of scammers.

And last but not least, think about how quickly someone on the internet goes from “hi, nice to meet you” to “oh my gosh I love you!” Because if it’s only within a few short days, that can be a red flag.

Mandy Staehler is the owner of Dating with Autism, which is a dating organization for Autistic people. She’s also a relationship coach.

“Relationship coaching isn't new, it's been around for decades, it's just really important for people with autism to also have access to this resource if they want,” says Staehler.

Mandy Staehler
Ellis Berry
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KSJD
Mandy Staehler in her office.

Staehler says her organization is overbooked with clients from all around the country who use the service virtually. She also says the rise in romance scams means many of her clients are targets for online criminals.

Staehler has a client that deals with these fake profiles on the regular.

“He even said, ‘I know that most of them are not beautiful women lining up waiting to talk to me. He's like, I know this. I know most of them are guys in basements just trying to make a buck. But don't you think after so many there has to just be one, one who's real one who wants to talk to me, one who is lonely and wants to talk to people like I do,’” says Staehler.

Staehler says online dating has been such a great tool for many Autistic people and to let criminals take it away is well … criminal.

She also says Autistic people can date and have healthy relationships on their own terms, however they want their relationship to look like.

Like Hannah Beller, for example! She has found a partner and is happily in a relationship. But she was only able to find her partner after years of navigating a world that lacks understanding for Autistic people, especially in dating.