Is your online romance a scam? Maybe not yet
Self-isolation measures amplify the feeling of solitude. With usual venues for mingling closed, we turn to technology. Meanwhile, fraudsters are boosting their grasp on online dating, committing to a long-term defrauding scheme.
The feeling of loneliness in North America, Europe, and China has reached an extent where researchers call the phenomena a 'behavioral epidemic,' with 10-40% of the population reporting feeling lonely or solitary.
Technology seemingly offers an escape from the four-walled traps that households have become over the past year. Over the past decade, 1,400 dating sites have been created in North America alone. Coupled with social media prevalence, the search for a partner has become possible without leaving home.
However, cybercriminals employ advances in online communications to benefit from the growing sense of loneliness.
Multiple bad actors entangle unsuspecting victims in romance scams, a type of online fraud where people's trust is used to take over their assets. It is estimated that 3% of the West's general population has suffered from a scam driven by an imitation of romantic feelings.
Technology and tools establish a base level of trust. Once that base level of trust is established, then it's all about using social engineering to layer that trust you build with a potential victim,Brett Johnson.
FBI data shows that romance scams are second only to business email compromise and email account compromise (BEC/EAC) attacks in terms of financial loss. Victims of romance fraud in the US lost over $475 million in 2019 alone.
For example, losses over credit card fraud over the same period accounted for $111 million. Coupled with a relatively low number of reported victims, that makes romance scams one of the most profitable paths bad actors can embark ok.
On average, individual loss in a romance scam stands at $2,600, and victims repeatedly send money. People aged 40 to 69 are among the most susceptible to romance scams, which strongly correlates with an increased sense of loneliness in the age group.
The number and volume of romance scams have increased dramatically over the past years. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) claims that the number of reported cases and volume of loss increased almost six times since 2015.
With self-isolation measures in place, the trend is unlikely to change. Most recent data by the UK Finance, a trade association for the nation’s financial sector, shows that the volume of romance scams last year increased by almost 40%. Avoiding a face-to-face meeting with the victim has never been so easy.
Not a month ago, Interpol issued a notice about criminals using dating apps to lure people into participating in investment schemes. For example, the British media reported that one victim had lost £30,000 to a stranger she met on Tinder.
"Once communication becomes regular, and a certain level of trust is established, criminals share investment tips with their victims and encourage them to join a scheme. Victims download a trading app and open an account, buy various financial products and work their way up a so-called investment chain," Interpol claims.
Successfully performing a romance fraud requires commitment and a great deal of social engineering according to a recent report by researchers at the University of Siena in Italy. After analyzing dozens of case studies on romance scams, they found out that criminals usually wait for as long as eight months before cashing in.
"The first phase, "grooming," which starts after initial contact between the scammer and the potential victim has been made, generally lasts 6-8 months and consists of daily communication with the victim to establish a warm, trusting, increasingly affectionate atmosphere of similar interests and values," claims the report.
Most of the romance scams that began during the autumn wave of worldwide lockdowns are only nearing the end of their first phase, which means that there will be thousands of admissions of love this Valentine’s Day that will end in broken hearts and stolen cash.
But before the heist, scammers will start testing victims' willingness to send small amounts of money or gifts. Appeals are often preceded by promises of a real-life meeting hampered by some financial or health-related calamity that a small gift or a transaction is meant to solve.
"The fraudulent relationship continues or even reinforces itself as the victim, under the influence of ambivalent emotions of ardor and fear of abandonment and deception, denies or rationalizes doubts to manage their feelings," claims the report.
Some criminals will ask for erotic photos that later may be used as an 'insurance policy' if the scam gets discovered. Former online rovers are not shy to hold the photos ransom for continuous payments once real intentions become clear.
Because a scam starts out as an opposition role, scammer on one side and potential victim on the other, the scammer gets the potential victim on his side of the fence and finally gets them to act out of desperation,Brett Johnson.
Fear and shame
Even though victims often take most of the blame for 'being stupid' and 'gullible,' the scam has more to do with technology and the perpetrator rather than the victim. Brett Johnson, a former cybercriminal dubbed the "Original Internet Godfather" by the US Secret Service, explained to an online audience that bad actors always rely on general trust in technology.
"Technology and tools establish a base level of trust. Once that base level of trust is established, then it's all about using social engineering to layer that trust you build with a potential victim," he explained.
Johnson, considered a pioneer in online crime and responsible for creating ShadowCrew, the forerunner to the dark web, said that talented scammers would make the victim believe that they are sending the money on their initiative.
A recurring motive among the scammers is a refusal of initial financial help from the victim to deepen the feeling of trust. Other bad actors even send money to the victims themselves. Usually, the transaction's real reason is money laundering or attempts to hide cash stolen from other victims.
Johnson and researchers in Italy noted that a common feature of romance scams is victim-blaming. That leads to many unreported cases as people are too ashamed to seek help or inform law enforcement about the crime they've been victim to.
"The scammer alienates the victim. Because a scam starts out as an opposition role, scammer on one side and potential victim on the other, the scammer gets the potential victim on his side of the fence and finally gets them to act out of desperation," the former cybercriminal explained.
FBI, Interpol, and other agencies fighting the fraudsters recommend being especially careful this year as months of self-isolation coupled with amplified loneliness during Valentine's Day may turn into scammers' payday.
Institutions recommend people avoid sending money to strangers at all costs, discuss the new relationship with a trustworthy acquaintance, and be wary of red flags, such as fake names or fabricated pictures. People starting an online relationship could use reverse image search and deepfake detectors to assist in detecting whether a person behind the black mirror is real or not.