Bad romance: crypto scammers exchange 'love' for money

As if meeting new people wasn't hard enough, scammers are here to make it even harder. Swapping words of love with fraudulent cryptocurrency schemes.

With researchers touting loneliness as a 'behavioral epidemic,' it's no wonder that people in isolation turn to technology for help. Last year, 1,400 dating sites were set up in North America alone, not to talk about the ever-growing stream of dating apps.

"The digital world is our new dating arena. Unfortunately, sextortion scammers have also benefited from this evolution. Whether it's by catfishing, "love-bombing" a victim, or taking advantage of hookup culture, the scammer in question can quickly escalate an online relationship," Hannah Hart, a digital privacy expert at ProPrivacy, told CyberNews.

Scammers take note. FBI just warned of a rising trend where scammers employ online romance scams, a form of confidence fraud, persuading victims to allegedly invest or trade cryptocurrencies.

In the first half of 2021, the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) received over 1,800 complaints related to online scams that resulted in losses exceeding $130 million in the US alone.

According to the agency, threat actors take it slow, first establishing a relationship. A slow burn allows to build trust, that sadly, is meant to be abused. Once scammers have victims' confidence, they start boasting knowledge about cryptocurrency investments, inviting them to join for a fast profit.

A victim is usually directed to a fraudulent website, specifically set up to resemble an investment portfolio. The catch is that the victim is presented with various numbers and graphs that show the profit accumulating. Victims are often allowed to withdraw some amount of 'profit.'

That, however, is just a bit. After a successful withdrawal, a scammer posing as a romantic interest encourages to invest more, prompting to 'act fast,' reasoning those quick profits require hasty action.

The true nature of the relationship comes to light once the victim tries to withdraw more money. Out of nowhere, additional taxes and fees appear, or in some cases, rules about how much money someone can withdraw come up.

FBI warns that scams have become so elaborate that a "customer service group" is also part of the scam. Once the victims get suspicious, scammers disappear into thin air, not only stealing the victims' money but undoubtedly leaving deep emotional scars.

The digital world is our new dating arena. Unfortunately, sextortion scammers have also benefited from this evolution,

Hannah Hart.

Shaming game

Romance scammers use different tactics to cash out on an unsuspecting victim. Some employ sextortion, a way to extort money via the threat of public shaming. IC3 received over 16,000 sextortion complaints this year, with losses exceeding $8 million.

The FBI notes that most victims report the initial contact to be mutual. However, the fraudster will try to steer the interaction from a trusted platform to a messaging app soon. The criminal usually is the first to initiate an exchange in sexually explicit content, encouraging the victim to follow.

However, scammers do not show themselves – pictures are either stolen or faked. More advanced tactics involve scammers hiring a video model to convince the victim into revealing him or herself.

It's not uncommon for fraudsters to gain access to a victim's social media account or get a hold of a contacts list, allowing the attacker to issue threats of revealing explicit content to friends and family.

Some scammers go even further, targeting people on LGBTQ+ apps, like Grindr and Feeld.

Once the victim shares pictures, the blackmail campaign begins. To make their threats seem more credible, scammers will name who they will send explicit content to. Usually, that's members of the family, friends, or employers.

That can be an extremely harsh situation for someone who has not come out as LGBTQ+. Preying on that, scammers pressure victims into paying, simultaneously threatening to destroy the victim's life if a ransom demand is not met.

Image by Shutterstock.

Contact authorities

FBI warns people never to send money, trade, or invest per the advice of someone met solely online. It's wise not to disclose your current financial status or other financial and personal details to barely known individuals.

In most miraculous investment cases, the adage of 'if it sounds too good to be true, it isn't' holds well. If a stranger offers unbelievable profits, one is ought not to believe it.

Another major red flag is urgency. Scammers want to cash in as fast as possible and will likely tell tales of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to invest at this very moment or else.

Most importantly, victims and their loved ones need to understand that the blame lies with the perpetrator and not the victim. It's also advised to contact authorities as it's impossible to catch the perpetrator if no one files a complaint. 

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The 'shame game': how sextortion scammers prey on victims' fears

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