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Stay safe from fraudsters this Valentine’s Day

The day of Valentine’s lovers is almost upon us. And while there’s something innate in human nature that yearns to be carried upwards on a joyous wave of elevating bliss, the sometimes reality is that unfortunately there are skanky fraudsters, conniving con artists and malicious miscreants who seek to steal, rob and cheat.
It’s an ancient con they carry out. A fraudster poses as a smitten lover, woos the victim with the expression of ardent desires then plunders their finances looting all they can. They’ve been doing this for centuries. But in the digital world the dating pool has become a lot larger and importantly it also provides a cloak of anonymity.

A con man’s tale on dating websites

This is the story of one con man. He comes from a small village in Nigeria and made an art out of conning people on dating sites. Using stolen credit card numbers for sale on the dark web he would flood dating sites with fake profiles. He plundered pictures from social media and dating sites. To snare a woman he would pose as an older, financially secure male. He even targeted men by using pictures of alluring women and pitching his voice a few octaves higher when talking on the phone. He estimated that over a four year period close to £700,000 was conned from about 20 victims.
His strategy was based on letting the victims make the first move. This was informed by the understanding that if somebody contacted his profile there was clearly something they liked. If he made the first move he had to do a lot of convincing. Once the bait was bitten a game of patience followed in which the target was bombarded with love notes and gifts until they were fully snared.

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Falling in love with an online illusion

In 2008 a book was published, Truth, Lies and Trust on the Internet, by Monica T.Whitty, a psychologist at the UK’s University of Leicester.
Using empirical data collected by social scientists, Whitty paints a picture of the internet as being a place in which individuals can “express their true selves, to develop ‘hyperpersonal' relationships characterised by high levels of intimacy and closeness.”
Speaking in plain language this is saying that because we don’t meet people in person, we can create idealized versions that essentially consist of our own projections, desires and needs fuelled by the interest from the other person. This allows people to be honest to a degree they might not be when first meeting a person face to face. And this honesty is an investment too, which the fraudster apparently reciprocates leading to the meeting of deep seated needs.
As one fraud investigator investigating online deception said: “Once people are invested in these [romances], it’s extremely difficult to convince them they are not dealing with a real person. People want to believe so badly.”
There were 3,889 victims of romance fraud last year. There’s nothing inherently dangerous in searching for a partner online. It’s simply nature doing her thing in the digital world. It becomes a problem when fraudsters attempt to manipulate natural needs and desires for their own gain. According to a BBC report the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau said there were 3,889 victims of romance fraud last year, who handed over a record £39m. That’s an awful lot of money.
The story cites the case of one victim who made contact with someone calling himself Marcelo from Manchester, an Italian claiming to be working in Turkey. ‘Manchester, Italian and Turkey’ rolled together in a dating profiles should have set the alarm bells ringing, it just doesn’t sound authentic.
For many dating sites their business model is dependent on having as many active profiles as possible to attract new customers. As such it’s not in their interest to validate the authenticity of people signing up. In fact in some cases, it has been reported that dating sites can create fake profiles in order to lure customers. Of course, this leaves the field wide open to fraudsters.

How to spot fake dating profiles

None of this means that online dating is inherently dangerous, there are more genuine and sincere people than there are fraudsters, but it’s useful to know just what the fraudster signs are.
  • Some profiles don’t have photos. They will include a minimum amount of profile information but will be keen to contact you.
  • A fraudster might try and get you offline as soon as possible by asking for your phone number at which point they will aim to strike up a relationship over the phone – or in some cases with instant messaging.
  • Some fraudsters use ‘glamorous’ photos that seem too good to be true. They usually are and in all likelihood the photo will have been taken from somewhere else.
  • You strike up communication with someone online and they ask a lot of personal questions about you, but don’t reveal much about themselves.
  • They come up with a reason to ask for your help after they have established a degree of emotional attachment. It will seem that your ‘relationship’ with them depends on you sending money.

How to protect your heart and your finances

  • Avoid ‘long distance’ relationships. Fraudsters will often target people who live some distance away, or in another country, so they won’t be caught out.
  • Don’t reveal personal information, keep your communications light. Wait until you meet someone in person so you can establish a level of trust.
  • Keep in mind that fraudsters will try and get you to reveal personal and intimate details to create the impression that they have a deep and genuine interest in you. But they won’t say much about themselves. They will also try and get you away from the dating site quickly so they can carry out their fraud.
  • Many fraudsters claim to have lost a spouse, child, or parent in an accident or they have a relative who is very ill such as granny who has a leg hanging off. They want your money and will do or say anything to get it.
  • Watch out for so called ‘beloveds’ who declare they are at the airport on their way to see you but their credit card has been declined. If this ploy was real, airports all over the world would be full of forlorn penniless suitors. They are clearly not.
  • Check out and get a sense of how widespread online dating site scams are. These are US sites but they provide interesting insight.
  • Don’t open attachments from a stranger. If someone sends you a photo in an attachment and you open it, you may infect your computer your computer with malware designed to steal your personal information.
Never, ever send money to someone you have only met online and don’t know in the real world. You’d only be walking into a fraudster’s virtual arms.
Filed under: Tips and tricks

Written by Steve Bell

Steve has a background in IT and business journalism and has written extensively for both the UK national and trade press including The Guardian, Independent-on-Sunday, The Times, The Register, MicroScope and Computer Weekly. He's also worked for most of the world's largest IT companies producing content producing. He has a particular focus on IT security and has produced several magazines in this area.

More articles by Steve Bell

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