How to Protect Yourself from Rising Romance Investment Scams

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The search for love and financial security in our increasingly online world has taken a sinister turn with the rise of romance investment scams – according to the 2023 Norton Cyber Safety Insights Report, more than one in every four adults has fallen victim to an online dating or romance scam worldwide.

The US Federal Trade Commission reported a staggering increase from 11,000 victims of romance scams in 2016 to 70,000 victims in 2022, resulting in a cumulative loss of $1.3 billion. Additionally, according to the FBI’s 2023 IC3 report, victims reported losses of approximately $652.5m to romance scams and $4.57bn to investment scams in 2023.

Types of Romance Scams Out There

Romance scams exploit individuals seeking love or companionship online and are unfortunately increasingly common in the digital age. Scammers create fake profiles on dating platforms or social media, charming unsuspecting victims into trusting relationships before manipulating them for financial gain.

One notorious scam is "pig butchering,” which commonly, though not exclusively, takes the form of a romantic relationship, where scammers exploit the vulnerability of individuals seeking love or companionship online.

Scammers pose as potential romantic partners, building trust and emotional connections with their targets. Once trust is established, the fraudsters introduce, often indirectly, enticing investment opportunities, promising astronomical returns and a life of luxury that seems too good to be true.

In a real-life scenario, a user might be approached by someone who appears to be a socialite, entrepreneur, CEO or self-made millionaire who initiates an intimate connection.

These scammers are experienced at creating the appearance of affluence, complete with photos of their supposedly luxurious lifestyle on social media platforms like Instagram.

Inevitably, the victim will be invited to join in on whatever “investment” supposedly made the scammer rich. However, in reality, these “business opportunities” are fake investment projects or false trading platforms, and the victim’s funds will be lost to them immediately after they are sent. 

It is important to recognize that the “scammers” behind pig butchering are often victims themselves, particularly of human trafficking. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has highlighted the rise in trafficking for forced criminality in South-East Asia, where the majority of pig butchering scams traditionally originate.

Trafficked individuals are forced to message victims or potential victims for up to 15 hours a day, often relying on scripts and “handbooks” distributed by the organized crime groups operating these scams. When a scam victim thinks they are speaking to one person, potentially a romantic partner, they are in reality often speaking to multiple people. 

Common Warning Signs

The following are some common warning signs for the cybersecurity community to be mindful of in the realm of romance financial scams:

Attracting the Victim 

  • Scammers create fake online profiles using false identities, posing as socialites, military personnel, aid workers or professionals working abroad
  • They tend to tailor their persona to match the victim's interests to appear genuine
  • They make early assertions of authenticity, showcasing luxury items, expensive possessions or glamorous hobbies.
  • Some scammers initiate contact through random messages, hoping to engage the victim in conversation

Building a Connection Without Meeting in Person 

  • Scammers persistently work to establish relationships, showering victims with affection and fabricated personal information
  • While some scammers profess feelings early on, others take months to build a seemingly perfect romance
  • They will often make false promises of planning visits or sending gifts without any actual follow-through
  • The lack of in-person meetings is a red flag; video calls and audio calls can be faked.

Asking for Money or Crypto

  • Scammers initiate requests for financial assistance, often disguising it as a personal emergency
  • Appeals may include expensive flight tickets, investment opportunities or urgent medical expenses for family members
  • Preying on emotional connections, scammers ask for money or crypto by creating stories of ailing relatives, failed businesses or muggings
  • A clear warning sign: If someone you met online asks for money or crypto, it's likely a scam

Protective Measures Online Daters Can Take

In addition to recognizing red flags, protective measures are crucial to ensure financial security online. The following are strategies for cybersecurity and information security professionals to safeguard both hearts and wallets against the escalating threat of romance scams:

  • Stay informed and educated. Regularly update yourself on the latest trends and tactics employed by scammers to stay ahead in the ever-evolving landscape of online scams.
  • Verify identities and be skeptical. Take the time to verify the identity of individuals encountered online, especially those forming romantic connections. Maintaining a healthy level of skepticism can prevent falling victim to deceptive schemes. Recognize that while scammers would previously steal and reuse social media photos, these images and videos are increasingly being generated with AI.
  • Guard your personal and financial information. Exercise caution when sharing such details online, and be wary of unsolicited requests for sensitive information. Genuine partners and reputable platforms prioritize user safety.
  • Consult trusted friends and family. Seek advice from friends and family members whom you trust. They can provide valuable perspectives and act as a sounding board for your online interactions. Sometimes, an outsider's viewpoint can reveal potential risks or inconsistencies that may be overlooked in the excitement of a new connection.
  • Use secure platforms and report suspicious activity. If you use a dating app, keep your communication within the platform's messaging service. Scammers often want you to switch to private communication channels like text, social media or phone calls to evade detection on dating sites.

If you are the victim of a scam, it’s important that you act quickly to mitigate further damage. Report the incident to the police, providing them with all available evidence, as this may aid in the potential recovery of lost funds. Additionally, report the scammer's identity on the platform where you initially encountered them.

Taking these measures will not only protect yourself but also contribute to the collective effort to fight online scams and safeguard others from falling victim to similar fraudulent activities.

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