Seeking love online or with an app? How to avoid scammers

Woman with mobile phone
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If you're using your computer or mobile phone to find love, you're not alone.

One in five Americans ages 25 to 34 have turned to online dating, according to the Pew Research Center. But digital security experts warn the convenience of online dating can also make consumers more vulnerable to online hackers. Some of these criminals have advanced cyberskills and now operate online, dating theft rings. The bad guys in these groups pretend to be singles looking for love, with the real intent of securing personal data, or getting victims to send cash.

Most dating fraud activity targeting Americans can be traced outside the U.S. to countries including Nigeria, Ghana and the Ivory Coast, according to fraud protection company iovation, which works with many online dating companies.

So if you're looking for love digitally around Valentine's Day, be extra wary this month. Iovation found fraudulent transactions on dating sites rose in February last year.

Security threats from dating apps
Security threats from dating apps   

Online dating has quickly moved from desktop to mobile platforms. Mobile traffic in the dating industry has more than tripled during the last few years. In 2014, mobile apps accounted for 46 percent of digital dating traffic, compared with 31 percent in 2013 and 14 percent in 2012, according to iovation.

But experts warn that mobile security has not kept pace with online dating's growth. According to a separate report released earlier this week, IBM found that 63 percent of the 40 most popular dating apps had a security vulnerability. IBM did not disclose the dating apps with vulnerabilities.

Read MoreDating apps pose US corporate security risk, says IBM

Caleb Barlow, vice president at IBM Security, likened these vulnerabilities to leaving your door unlocked while going on vacation. Identified vulnerabilities could allow hackers to potentially steal personal information, such as your credit card numbers and addresses.

"Mobile platforms, like Android and [Apple's] iOS are still new and best practices are not yet established," said Patrick Wardle, director of research at cybersecurity company Synack. He added many online dating applications are start-ups and in the rush to get new applications out, and cybersecurity sometimes can be an afterthought.

Here are the top mistakes that consumers make when looking for love electronically and ways to avoid the pitfalls.

Tip 1: Read app reviews first, then download

To protect yourself, Michelle Dennedy, vice president and chief privacy officer at Intel Security, formerly McAfee, advises reading reviews of dating apps and their privacy policies before downloading apps. She also suggests removing any pictures, notes or contacts from your phone you would not want public. Once you download a dating app, the added technology may have extensive access to anything stored on your phone.

As an extra precaution, IBM's Barlow advises to download only dating applications from well-known app stores, such as Apple's iTunes store, of Google's Play Store. These app stores scan for vulnerabilities.

Tip 2: Beware of revealing your location

Many dating apps, such as Tinder and Grindr, also use geolocation functionality to help match singles with others nearby. But experts warn against sharing location data, which can open users up to stalking.

"Even if a [Grindr] user turns off their location, this information is still being reported to the server," Synack's Wardle said. Synack researchers say they were able to track users' physical location using other resources and digital strategies available in the marketplace—even if app users had shut off location functionality.

Grindr responded to Synack's research, saying, "We will continue to evolve and improve the operation of the application based on considerations of security and functionality.

"Grindr encourages any user who has a concern about his location privacy to disable the sharing of his distance in Grindr settings," the company said in an emailed statement to CNBC.

A similar location vulnerability was found on Tinder in February 2014 but has since been fixed.

To avoid stalking and other dangers, Wardle of Synack advises turning off geolocation from your mobile device's operating system, which usually can be navigated through a settings menu.

And if you opt to use a geolocation dating app, Wardle said to "assume you're being tracked," and as a precaution only to use the application while you are in a public place.

Read MoreYear of the hack? A billion records compromised in 2014

Tip 3: Don't overshare personal information

Data apps also house a treasure trove of personal information including photos and specific personal likes and dislikes. And once conversation between two daters is initiated, it can get intimate quickly.

Fraudsters can use information shared in profiles and conversations to steal your identity, according to Molly O'Hearn, vice president of operations at fraud prevent company, iovation.

The information captured through online dating apps can also be used to access financial or other online accounts, according to IBM's Barlow. He also advised users against outing personal data tied to frequently used password security questions like your pet's names and high school mascots—data sometimes featured in online dating profiles. And if you must reveal your pet name or school mascot, lie and don't publicly reveal details related to your digital passwords, Barlow explained.

Dennedy of Intel Security also advises to not get lulled into false intimacy and share compromising pictures. If the person you are talking to is actually a scammer, they may try to extort money to keep the pictures private.

Finally experts say beware of some telltale signs your date may be a fraudsters.

Iovation's Gougler said if your potential date's personality varies to extremes in communications, that's a potential red flag. Many online dating fraud rings have different people responding to messages at different times, creating inconsistent communications. In addition, watch for unusual grammar of word choices in communications. Gougler said one online dater reported a suspicious person sending a message, "I like your structure!!!" It turns out the same message with the odd word choice of "structure" had been sent thousands of times in a quest for cash.

And trust your gut. "If it seems too good to be true, it probably is," Dennedy said.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled cybersecurity firm Synack.