#ValentinesDay: Staying Safe from Romance Scams

The growing reliance on digital services in the past year, borne out of the COVID-19 crisis, has enabled many aspects of life to function safely, ranging from online shopping to communicating with friends and family via video conferencing software.

This has also been seen in regard to the innate human desire to find love, with a substantial uptake in online dating services observed amid ongoing social distancing restrictions. Stefano De Blasi, threat researcher at Digital Shadows, highlighted: “Valentine’s Day is fast approaching and for many people that means one thing: going to the app store of their choice and downloading a dating app. Even with restrictions from the COVID-19 pandemic, dating apps such as Tinder, Hinge, Grindr and Bumble have thrived as people are often forced to stay indoors and isolate, eschewing traditional ways of meeting.”

Sadly, just as in areas like e-commerce, the increased numbers utilizing online dating services has provided nefarious actors with a wider pool of people to exploit, and a big rise in romance scams has been detected in the past year. This commonly involves fraudsters convincing those they have connected with online that they are in a genuine relationship, and using this emotional attachment to ultimately hoodwink people out of substantial sums of money. Chris Hauk, consumer privacy champion at Pixel Privacy, explained: “Victims join a dating app, or begin communicating with someone via Facebook or another social network. After laying the groundwork for a ‘relationship’ with a victim, the scammer will begin asking the victim to do them ‘favors’ like receiving money for them and then wiring the funds to an overseas location. The scammer may claim to need funds to assist a loved one battling COVID-19, or they claim to represent a charitable organization or tell another semi-plausible story.”

With this year’s Valentine’s Day taking place amid strict lockdowns in many countries, it seems certain that this weekend will see particularly high numbers logging onto dating apps, putting romance scammers on high alert. In light of this, a UK police force this week issued a warning to people to be wary of such schemes. To ensure that the pursuit of love doesn’t lead to broken wallets as well as hearts, it is critical to understand the tactics employed by fraudsters on dating sites and apps, and how these can be detected.

Characteristics and Behaviors of Scammers

Romance fraudsters are often highly targeted in their approach, and will often pinpoint those in demographic groups that are viewed as especially vulnerable to falling foul to such scams. Hart outlined: “More often than not, it is women who are the targets of romance fraud, and particularly women aged 40-59. It is not uncommon for a fraudster to latch onto more vulnerable individuals either, recent divorcees and widows are popular targets.”

For such groups, it is advisable to be especially wary if the other person has initiated the contact. “The advice is, as always, rather straight forward – it’s unlikely that an unknown younger female or male without prior contact with you will initiate contact that leads to a relationship,” commented Martin Jartelius, CSO at Outpost24. “If they find you, and without you having reached out in any form, it’s time to be careful. If you have spoken to someone for a period of time, but never met them, and they start asking for financial support or money, understand that at this point you have to choose to no longer have the illusion of a relationship, or no longer having the money. It’s an expensive fake virtual relationship.”

There are other indicators that scammers are operating that users should look out for when in contact with a potential love interest. A key one is if they quickly establish a fool proof reason not to meet in person, even outside of current social distancing restrictions. Tom Pendergast, chief learning officer at MediaPro, said: “Criminals are creative, but most romance scams have some things in common: distance. Many scammers will tell you that they want to meet in person, but then always come up with an excuse why they can’t. They might pose as military personnel, or a professional who is working overseas, and so can’t meet in person. If you haven’t met the person after a month or two, you should be extremely skeptical.”

“If you haven’t met the person after a month or two, you should be extremely skeptical”

If a person is being pressured into giving up friends and family for them, that’s another huge red flag. Pendergast explained: “Scammers will try to isolate you from family and friends, making themselves your entire world. Don’t let that happen. Make sure you keep trustworthy people in your life who have your back. Share that suspicious message or unusual request with them, and work together to stop a scam before it ends in heartbreak.”

During a time of unprecedented social distancing restrictions, where a face-to-face meet ups are difficult or even impossible to arrange, it is a good idea to try and arrange a video call rather than continue purely with texts and phone calls. Cybersecurity company NortonLifeLock advised: “Seeing someone’s face can be a sure-fire way to determine whether they’re real or fake. For this reason, set up a phone or video chat early on in your communications with an online love interest. If they dodge the opportunity, they may be a romance scammer.”

However, caution should continue to be exercised even when a video call has been agreed to and carried out. Stephen Kapp, CTO and founder of Cortex Insight, pointed out: “When you can see someone on camera you can see that they are real and they are who they say they are, so people are more likely to let their guard down. The bad news is, even if you can see a person through a camera, it doesn’t mean they are genuine or not using online dating for malicious purposes.”

If it is a romance scammer, inevitably the conversation will be turned towards finances at some stage, which is a topic that should never be discussed between those who have not met in person. Kapp added: “Never discuss financial matters, such as investing, on virtual dates.”

Being overly complimentary and affectionate is another common tactic romance scammers will employ. Paul Bischoff, privacy advocate at Comparitech, noted: “Victims are often showered with affection, a tactic known as ‘love bombing,’ to hurry things along. Once the scammer feels they have the victim sufficiently convinced, the scammer will either ask for money to cover some sort of emergency situation, or ask the victim to transfer money or goods.”  

For people who have suspicions about the motives of those they are interacting with online, sometimes a little bit of sleuth work can reveal a scam artist. “Do research to avoid romance scams,” advised Hauk. “Many scammers will use photos they have found on Google. The photos could be of minor celebrities, models or adult stars. Do a reverse image search on Google. Ask specific questions about details seen in a profile. Detailed questions can cause a scammer to misremember details.”

Limit Personal Information on Dating Sites

Fraudsters will use the data they have available about their potential victim to make a romance scam more believable, or to use the data for other nefarious purposes, such as selling the information on the dark web. It is therefore essential that far more caution is exercised when writing biographies on dating sites than is often currently the case.

De Blasi said: “Research has shown that people feel free to share more sensitive information on their dating apps than compared to other social media profiles. Dating app profiles can push individuals to overshare bits of their lives that they would otherwise keep offline. Additionally, information is shared by default when accepting the terms and conditions of your dating app of choice. Depending on the apps being used, shared data may often include sexual orientation, gender, location data, religion and political affiliations.

“Now think of the consequences of having such data out in the open and for the wrong hands to grab. Given the wealth of data shared with these platforms, the risks connected to this practice for users are many.”

“Given the wealth of data shared with these platforms, the risks connected to this practice for users are many”

Responsibility on Organizations

The growth in online users in the past year has forced many organizations to rethink and revamp their approach to security, with video conferencing platforms being a prime example of this. The same principle should apply to online dating sites, who have a responsibility to do more to protect their customers from bad actors.

Gus Tomlinson, general manager at GBG, said: “As well as more awareness of the key tricks fraudsters use, it is important that online dating platforms also look at how the latest technology can help reduce the number of fake profiles. Whilst consumers are becoming increasingly familiar with more secure identity verification methods when it comes to online banking or shopping, often approval for online dating platforms is solely based on linking a social media accounts.”

She added: “This could be made more trustworthy to not only reduce these scams but, most importantly, the emotional and financial pain caused to victims.”

As well as dating sites putting in place more stringent checks on users, banks also have a key role to play in preventing these types of fraud from succeeding. With romance scams typically involving the victim voluntarily transferring large sums of money to a fraudster, ensuring these are flagged before it’s too late is critical. Andy Renshaw, VP of payments strategy & solutions at Feedzai, highlighted the opportunities that emergent technologies such as artificial intelligence can provide in this regard.

“Machine learning (ML) and AI, for instance, are able to identify the markers of fraudulent activity and flag a suspicious transaction before it is processed,” he explained. “Crucially, ML engines can also provide context: where in the past the bank could have only told customers that a certain transaction carried a certain risk, expressed with a numeric value, new technologies now allow fraud prevention teams to tell customers that the same transaction they are attempting has been made from five other accounts in the span of two weeks. This is particularly important to prevent romance scams, in which fraudsters prey on people’s emotions.”

For many years now, online dating has proven to be an effective way for couples to meet and build long-term relationships. In the past year, this channel has become even important for those looking to find love as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. People shouldn’t be put off from using these services therefore, but they should remain vigilant and aware of the threats posed by fraudsters when doing so. Pendergast summed up: “There will always be fraudsters and crooks among the true-hearted seekers of love and a meaningful relationship. No one’s immune to being manipulated, but we can all stay safe by showing skepticism.

“Be conscious of your own vulnerability. You went into this dating thing to be open to new people, but that doesn’t mean you should check your inherent skepticism of odd requests or weird behavior.”

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