Pretend paramours will go to great lengths to look as legitimate as possible and "love bomb" their victims into submission, a phishing expert warns as romance scams soar.
Despite a change here and a tweak there, romance scams have largely remained the same for the past 15 years, according to Ronnie Tokazowski, a principal threat advisor at a phishing protection firm Cofense.
Scammers are leveraging dating apps and online chats to "bombard" victims with love and attention until they are ready to share their fortunes with someone they have never met, Tokazowski says.
Preliminary results from the Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) Internet Crime Complaint Center indicate that 2022 was another record year for romance scams, with estimated 19,000 victims in the US losing a total of $739 million.
It is a notable increase from 2021, when the reported losses hit a record $547 million, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). It was nearly six times the figure in 2017, with crooks defrauding romance seekers of $1.3 billion in the five years since then.
More money is lost to romance scams than any other fraud category observed by the FTC. The rise of cryptocurrencies is one factor driving this trend, with payments made to scammers in crypto reaching $139 million in 2021 alone.
Victims also paid $36 million to scammers in gift cards, the most widespread payment method. According to the FTC, one in four romance scam victims reported having paid scammers with gift cards.
The period around Valentine's Day is when scammers are particularly likely to exploit people looking for companionship or romance online, FBI offices across the country have warned. Romance fraud is a global problem, with £88 million ($106.4 million) reportedly lost to dating scams in the UK last year.
It does not mean online dating should be off limits – it only means people should exercise caution, Tokazowski told Cybernews in an interview.
Can you describe what a romance scam is?
Romance scams involve threat actors leveraging dating apps and online chats to target those looking for love. They often go to great lengths to make profiles look as legitimate as possible. They have pictures and templates and go to great lengths to trick you.
Once they capture the attention of a potential victim, they do their best to convince the person they are perfect for each other. Once they feel like they have built a solid emotional bond, they will begin using emotional manipulation while facilitating different types of crime.
Some of these crimes include gift card fraud, business email compromise, check fraud, or reshipping scams, which consist of receiving and sending goods. These unwitting participants become the underlying money networks responsible for billions in fraud, both foreign and domestic. With victims in 90% of the countries in the world, this is far from a US-only problem.
In your experience, what are some common characteristics or red flags of a romance scam?
Common characteristics of romance include love-bombing, which includes scammers bombarding them with love, attention, and affection, causing victims to become blind to the unfolding situation. Once scammers feel as though they have the victim’s full affection, they will begin the push for money.
Maybe the scammer will suddenly have a medical emergency but is unable to pay the bill or maybe they are short on rent for the month, there are many ways a scammer will try to steal money from victims, mainly just trying to use this affection they have for the scammer against them.
How do scammers target their victims and gain their trust?
Scammers will spend time seemingly getting to know the victim. Maybe the two of you really hit it off. You have the same interests, may have been previously married or widowed, and finally found that one person who feels the same way you do.
You spend hours chatting, exchanging sweet nothings, texting every morning, and begin chatting about when the two of you can finally meet. They may live in another country that seems like they’re a world away, but you can feel their presence with you every time you chat. Heck, you may even fantasize about the day you’re finally able to meet.
Have you noticed any patterns in terms of demographics that might be more vulnerable to romance scams?
When it comes to demographics for romance scams, we tend to see older adults (50 and over) being hit harder by romance scams. Psychologically, victims have a tendency to idealize relationships, are considered impulsive, and have predispositions towards dependency.
What measures can individuals take to protect themselves from falling victim to a romance scam? What should they do if they suspect they may have been targeted?
Using reverse image searches, search for the names and email accounts using a search engine. However, don’t use this as 100% verification. Scammers go to great lengths to make profiles look as legitimate as possible.
It’s okay to go on dating apps and it’s okay to try and date someone online, but if someone is giving you the runaround about meeting in person or asking for money, it’s a scam.
Know your emotions. Heartbreak is one of the hardest things humans emotionally feel. However, it’s better to break off a potential scam and feel a little hurt than spend years in a scam. Scammers take you on emotional roller coasters of love to keep you in their clutches.
Have you observed any changes or developments in the tactics used by romance scammers in recent years?
While scammers have changed tactics, such as adopting cryptocurrencies as cashout and theft methods for victims, the scam largely remains unchanged for the last 15 years. Scammers weaponize victim’s emotions against them, sending them on a roller coaster of emotions, influencing them to do things on behalf of their fictitious lovers.
In your opinion, what can be done to better educate the public and raise awareness about romance scams?
Unfortunately, there is no single technology solution to this type of crime. Instead, it’s best fought through user awareness. At Cofense, for example, we have a BEC microsite that offers scam resources and guidance for contending with email and other types of compromise.
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