A heartbreaking new scam has become highly profitable of for gangs of cybercriminals - who ‘fake’ love affairs with people on dating sites, showering them with gifts and promises for years, before finally robbing them of thousands.
Hundreds of people in the UK have lost more than £10,000 to the scam, which is becoming far more sophisticated with each passing year. Fake profiles made by criminals haunt EVERY dating site - despite efforts to weed them out.
In Britain, £24.5 million is lost every year to such scams - and worse, that figure might be a serious underestimate, according to Mark Brook, Editor of OnlinePersonalsWatch.
Many victims are so ashamed and distraught that the perpetrator is never prosecuted. The criminals often live abroad, conducting thousands of online affairs at once until one ‘pays out’.
In Britain, six million of us use dating sites - and criminals often target older single people, in hopes of more profit when they finally defraud their target. Last year, one British woman lost £800,000 to such a scam. The love affairs feel real - the criminals speak good English, often pretending to be ex-pats.
Like real love affairs, they grow over time - the criminals often target thousands of victims at once, messaging each in turn - and the criminals often send gifts or cards, before the scam enters its final phase.
For victims, the loss can be horrific - £8,750 per person on average in the UK in 2012. 16 per cent (457) of reported victims parted with £10,000 or more, with 49 people reporting to have lost more than £100,000 and one unfortunate victim losing a whopping £850,000 looking for love online.
If you’ve ‘known’ each other for months, are you safe?
"No. Scammers often do this full time - they'll pan for gold among tens of thousands to find a few potential victims. It usually takes a few months to build up to the 'I need money for a kidney operation or I'll die' type scam. People get scammed because they're in love, and really really want to believe its not all B.S.
There's actually a double-scam that can happen when people finally find out that they've been scammed. The scammer can come back and say, 'I am a scammer, but while I was working on scamming you, I really fell in love with you!' And on it goes, and its all really really sad and upsetting for both consumers, and for people who run (veritable) dating sites."
Can you spot scammers by looking at their profiles?
"The line of communication is the give away. If they want you to get off the dating site asap, that's a sign. In general I recommend people chat for a short while, and then jump onto a video date.
That helps waste less time in general anyway. I don't think anyone should put more than half an hour of time into communication without doing a video or real life date."
Are there details I should leave off my profile, in case I’m targeted?
"The religiously inclined are targeted, as they're more likely to take a leap of faith. Older women, because its tough to find a hot older gentleman. They play the odds, and they're looking for some sign of gullibility among people who are likely to have some savings. People who are generous, vulnerable, of-faith and fighting poor odds of finding a partner are ideal. So if your profile hints at any of those, you're more of a target. Get a friend to review it."
You meet on Match, but he’s insistent you chat via email or Skype
"It is the scammers job to get users off the site asap. They want to get into direct email or Skype or phone contact as soon as possible. That way dating sites’ detection systems have less chance of picking up on unusual lines of communication.
For example, we know people don't use the word 'wire' in regular dating communications. That's a red flag and is usually picked up by dating sites' auto-detection systems; the first line of defense. But the scammers know better than to use that word on dating sites now. Its constant cat-and-mouse."
Cybercriminals will often conduct conversations with thousands of victims at once - and you can sometimes spot patterns?
"You can sometimes pick up phrases that criminals re-use, simply by using Google on their messages. But less so in the past few months. They get smarter and stronger each year. Most good dating sites have automated systems which root out scammers, using patterns of language - such as the word ‘wire’ for wire transfer of cash."
It’s not a word that usually comes up in normal relationships. That’s the single most obvious sign - being asked to open up your wallet after a few weeks of communication. The sites which I work for are watching, though - we know it’s super-critical to do an A1 job of nixing scams by kicking them off our sites before they get a chance to communicate with consumers."
Before making first contact, do some detective work
"There are certain kinds of profile that scammers do tend to use - ex-pats working abroad being one of them. If scammers have made it onto a dating site, its because the profile looks normal. If you’re about to make contact, it doesn’t hurt to look at other networks such as Facebook.
If the person has a Facebook profile with 10 friends, well that’s a dead giveaway as well. Who has just ten friends on Facebook? If you’re worried, insist on a Skype call. If the person you see is different from their profile, hang up immediately and sever all ties."
What are the real ‘red alert’ warning signs?
"Scammers will take months to groom a target. They'll send gifts, and make users feel beautiful and cared for, and then hit them with a test. A small request to open up their wallets. The scams will be small at first. Then they're off to the races. My advice: don't send money to someone you've never met, and don't jump on a plane until you've verified the identity and existence of the person you're visiting. Ideally, take a friend."
How common are these sorts of scams?
"Every single dating site has to suppress and deal with fraud. But prosecutions don’t happen often enough. The problem is, most of these scams are international and it becomes tough to coordinate jurisdiction. It's exhausting, and most victims just want to put the entire event behind them. Even if they've been taken for tens of thousands of dollars."
I am worried my ‘new romance’ might not be what it seems - what can I do?
"Call your local police department, and ask to speak to their cyber crimes unit. Notify the dating site that you believe that you have fallen victim (dating sites keep a blacklist of known scammers). If you have already given the scammer money, be prepared for the fact that you may not get it back - and prosecuting scammers is rare.
However, you can do some things to get your own back - such as suck up the scammers time and just reel them in in return. I like the 419eater.com approach. In fact, in the dating industry, some sites used to use 'scammer hell.' They'll identify scammers and then put them into their own database where they just scam each other."