Naturally, most people seek companionship to stave off loneliness. But what happens if, in your quest to find a significant other, you end up with more than a broken heart – an empty wallet? This, unfortunately, is the experience of many who have been victims of online dating scammers. While some have found their happily ever after through reputable online dating apps or sites, the general consensus is that many websites are usually breeding grounds for manipulative individuals.
Consider the example of Tom (name has been changed), a man in his 40s who ‘found’ love after visiting a dating site against several warnings from family and friends. As is the case in many other disastrous online love affairs, he got shoved out of love upon the realisation that he had lost all his life savings. Although tragic, Tom’s story serves as a cautionary tale. It also illustrates how scammers take advantage of people’s gullibility.
In the last couple of decades, rapid advances in digital technology have given rise to new forms of social interaction on social media. As we all know, digital communication technologies transcend physical, social, and psychological barriers.
While communication technologies continue to revolutionise human societies, the modalities of interaction have impacted the online dating industry, giving rise to new forms of pathologies and criminal behaviours.
Across the globe, online romance scams have become a menace to modern civilisation such that the International Police has issued a Purple Notice to its 194 member countries outlining a specific modus operandi on dating applications.
One of the things identified is that criminal elements feed off people’s vulnerabilities as they look for potential matches, reeling them into a sophisticated fraud scheme.
They say that love is blind. However, the INTERPOL’s financial crimes unit strictly warns dating app users to be vigilant, be sceptical, and be safe when entering into online relationships, having received reports from around the world about this type of scam. This is even more important as people turned to online interactions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Perhaps, online dating apps have been invaluable in times past. The reality today is vastly different from a few years ago. As technology evolves, scammers have become more sophisticated and adept in the use of digital tools. They are getting smarter and taking advantage of new products or services and major events to create believable stories that will convince people to part with their money or personal details.
Dubbed the ‘Corona year’, 2020 witnessed a significant surge in the activities of scammers as the number of people who used online dating sites increased, according to the Pew Research Center. One reason could be the isolation and imposed lockdowns that were put in place to curb the spread of the deadly virus. In any case, romance scammers were primed, ready to take advantage.
Like every organised crime you might have read about or seen in movies, scammers also have laid-out schemes. Their undoing, however, is that their modus operandi can be eerily similar. Let’s consider the following steps:
Step 1. Scammers set up attractive online profiles to draw people in. Bearing no resemblance whatsoever to them, fraudsters often steal pictures from the web and use phoney names. Once they catch their mark, an artificial romance is established. With the first step successful, they move on to the next.
Step 2. Under the pretext of getting to know each other better, the scammer quickly switches from a dating site to social media or texting. Using emotive language, he forms a deep emotional attachment with his victim.
Step 3. As weeks turn into months, the victim is lulled into a false sense of security, having been convinced of finding the “right one”. Next comes the demands, accompanied with stories that are cleverly worded to manipulate the victim.
Aside from money, gift cards, vouchers and other valuable items that people lose to scammers, some have been used to unwittingly launder or move money for criminals; these run the risk of being prosecuted by the law.
Although many people use social media, not necessarily because they’re looking for love, still some have been targeted on social networking sites, often through an unexpected friend request or message from an unknown person. Sadly, some still fall for the tricks of petty scammers. “This can never happen to me”, you may vow but one can’t be too careful.
So, having considered some of the ways scammers operate, how can you protect yourself from them? How can you play it safe while not giving up the search for love online? Since information is power, here are some tips to help you steer clear of scammers:
Be aware that scammers are dangerously real. When dealing with uninvited people who seeming pop out of nowhere, whether it’s on a social networking site, dating site or application, always consider the possibility that the approach may be a scam. Remember, the wise saying that if something looks too good to be true, it probably is.
Do some digging
Perhaps, you want to begin using a dating app, double-check it and read the app reviews to know what others are saying about it. If it’s a website, confirm the authenticity of the domain name.
Do a reverse-image search of the profile pictures of anyone you are interested in. If they’re linked to another name or with details that don’t add up, it’s a scam. Be quick to spot anything that doesn’t add up about your potential suitor. Red flags would be an indication that the person is not what s/he seems. Flee!
Don’t share personal details
Maybe you are convinced somehow that the person you’ve met checks out well; do not be quick to share personal details such as your bank account number, ID number or other sensitive information. If made available, scammers are unscrupulous elements who would not hesitate to use your information and pictures to either steal your identity or target you in a scam.
Oftentimes, deep shame may cause some victims to keep their bad experiences with scammers a secret. However, a practical thing that could be done is to report the matter to appropriate authorities. If this is done promptly, part of what is stolen may be recovered.
Don’t rush it
Good things come at the right time. Don’t hurriedly conclude that you’ve found your perfect match. Take it slowly. Ask lots of questions and watch out for inconsistent answers.
ICT Clinic by CFA is published weekly in the Sunday Punch