Could I be the victim of a dating scam?

£39 million was lost last year by 3,889 UK victims of dating fraud, according to the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau.[1]

Online dating victims are persuaded to part with large sums of money, on average almost £10,000[2] per victim. Recently, a man killed himself after handing over thousands of pounds to a fake girlfriend.[3] Even very intelligent people have handed over hundreds of thousands. How does this happen?

Outline of article:

  1. What psychological techniques are used?
  2. A real conversation between scammer and victim
  3. How can you tell if someone is a scammer?
  4. What is the scammer aiming for?
  5. How can you protect yourself?

 

  1. What psychological techniques are used?

According to Whitty (2015)[4], there are five stages in the process of creating intimacy leading up to asking for money.

Stage 1: The victim gets a message from someone on a dating site with fantastically attractive photos. He/she is flattered and excited.

Stage 2: The scammer “grooms” the victim, priming them to send money. This is done over a period of months or even a year, in which a bond is gradually built up. It’s difficult to imagine that happening, but when you get so much attention from someone, often with many messages every day, you will begin to share personal information with them and begin to look forward to sharing your day with them. They will begin to express feelings of attraction, love, dependence, and admiration for you, and talk about a future together. Repetition and familiarity, together with arousal from emotional and perhaps sexual intimacy in messages, will begin to wear down the victim’s defences. The victim often discloses a lot of personal information. The scammer will message night and day to keep the bond strong. Particularly for victims who aren’t getting much attention elsewhere on the dating sites, this level of intimacy will create emotional dependency.

Stage 3: The scammer begins to request funds from the victim, with elaborate and specific stories that seem genuine. They begin with a small request, such as to send them a mobile phone. If you do succumb, other requests, each for greater and greater amounts of money will soon follow. This is called the “foot in the door technique”: once we have agreed to one thing, we find it difficult to resist successive requests, partly because we want to justify the previous decision to ourselves and not appear inconsistent to ourselves (this is called cognitive dissonance reduction).

This also involves the sunk cost fallacy: to justify to yourself the money you’ve already invested, you have to continue to invest, otherwise the original investment will be wasted. The more you invest in something the harder it becomes to abandon it.

Stage 4: The victim may be sexually “abused” via cybersex.

Stage 5: The victim discovers he/she has been the victim of a scam, and is often traumatised, even if no money has been handed over.

  1. A real conversation between scammer and victim

Here is a sample of the conversation between one of my clients and a scammer (some details have been changed and typos cleared up to protect the victim). The conversation begins about three months into the online relationship. There have been no phone calls or video-chats. The conversation is conducted by email. The scammer claims to be a health professional working for a charity in the Middle East, but later she says she is in Nigeria (a big warning sign).

Scammer: Good morning my love, I’m wishing you a very good day ahead today. Please keep me private in your life, I want to be your wife and have the rest of my life with you.

Scammer: I’m about to go to work. Have a good day. I will write and check on your message when I can on my break time or when free.

Victim: Darling, have a wonderful day. I’m dreaming of us together xxx

Scammer: I have attached a video of me here for you! Happy weekend sweetheart. [Video does not show face.]

Victim: I like the look you have … It drives me crazy! I want to have you close to me always xxx

Scammer: Hello handsome sexy man….I know only you can be this sweet to me.

Victim: Hi darling – thank you for your lovely messages and attachments. I love you even more! xxxx

Scammer: Hello good day to you sweetheart, thanks for your lovely message and comments you make me just want to kiss you right now. Would love to have been kissing you all day. I will do my best to satisfy you. I love you more than the world now and I want you so much.

Victim: In case I haven’t told you for an hour or so – I adore you xxxxxx

Scammer: I want you to assist me with some money please my darling … I’m sure you can send me something and the mobile phone. I’m tired of asking my fellow workers for assistance. I’m buying a lot of things for my kids and I’m in need of a little support. I’m not happy …. My job and family members are not giving me joy. I’m thinking of quitting my job. Please get back to me soon my sweetheart… xxx

Scammer: I’m not doing so well today … I’m breaking up inside and feeling depressed.

Victim: Quit the job and come to the UK darling I will take care of you! How much do you need? I love you xxx

Scammer: Please gorgeous I need money right now. What can you afford? I didn’t give an amount. How much can you help me with right now and can it be sent today please?

Scammer: I’m quitting my job! I have my paperwork ready.

Scammer: Hi sexy, please send the money to me today. I have attached the details here – you can send me a transfer to here by MoneyGram or western union service. I’m going to work now and will check your message in the next hour.

Victim: Please let this be true – I love you and want you to be my wife xxxxx

Scammer: Thank you my darling I understand what you are telling me and yes I want this to be real for me I see myself being your wife and life partner, I want you in my life and I love you so much.

Scammer: You ask for a transfer form it can be filled written to send to me through this information I sent in attached picture you can give the money to the cashier at the transfer desks with the form and I think you need your ID or driver’s license to fill a form and after it filled in sent you get a transfer copy of receipt that you can send to me with transfer code so I can give my transport official to receive it and reach to me.

Scammer: Oh sorry I didn’t know you might have not been able to use a service transfer before now, you can get a MoneyGram or western union transfer service through a bank transfer, you ask for the transfer available either MoneyGram or western union transfer and I think they have outlets you can locate with your mobile online a nearby one close to you and at the transfer let nobody tell you otherwise I’m your wife already.

Victim: Please send me a video of you xxx

Victim: Hi darling – it is so difficult to understand your instructions – it all seems so complicated and I am not sure exactly what you are asking me to do! Do you not have a personal bank account – I can do BACS!!

Scammer: Send my cousin my mobile which you got for me to get it here she will send me the phone, please send to this address [address provided]

Scammer: I can’t wait to start chatting to you as soon as I get my mobile phone! I need to be able to Whatsapp you and communicate better …. Send me the transfer soon darling. Here’s my sister’s bank account – she’ll be able to forward the money to me. I have also arranged a local mobile sim network from here and hope to speak with you soonest, thanks for your support love and care. [UK Bank account provided, which was not in the name or address given but an international clearing account in London.]

Scammer: You can send the transfer to me through my family living in London to forward it to me and the mobile. I hope you are doing well today.

Victim: Hi gorgeous. I wish we could meet. xxx

Scammer: I’m fine here sweetheart the weather has been very hot today, I’m really tired of using other people’s stuff to send you a message. I wish we could meet too. Soon.

Victim: I’m not sure about sending you the money. You never send me videos with your face in and we never talk on the phone. How do I know I can trust you? [Victim has been alerted to scam.]

Scammer: I don’t think you love me after all. Don’t contact me again. [Scammer tries to contact victim several times more and then gives up.]

  1. How can you tell if someone is a scammer?

They are “out of your league”. If their picture is too perfect or looks like it’s been airbrushed, it can be easy to feel flattered and excited by the attention. Sexual arousal is inevitable when you start exchanging messages which can become intimate emotionally and sexually, and this will lower your normal defences and affect your judgment significantly. You will start to ignore the warning signs and enjoy the attention. They are likely to be younger than you if they are a woman; and well-off or with a high status job if they are a man. The man may be in an army uniform or a suit. These features reflect what research has shown about dating preferences for men and women[5].

They have no photo or very little information on their profile. They may claim it’s because they have a top secret government job, or that they’re getting pictures soon. This could be an automated bot[6], a scammer or someone already in a relationship. They may disappear from the site fairly quickly.

They claim to be abroad for a while. Scammers want you to think they’ll be able to meet eventually so they can build up a bond with you, but need an excuse for why they can’t meet right now. They may claim to be working abroad, perhaps with some kind of altruistic job in the developing world, to gain your sympathy or make you less likely to think they have sinister motives.

They can’t chat or video-chat on the phone. If they can’t meet, a genuine dater would want to chat. If they only send you videos of themselves instead (particularly without the face showing) this is a bad sign. If they do talk and their voice is distorted, this is also a bad sign, as it is used to prevent identification.

They repeat the same phrases. They may be copying and pasting from messages they’ve sent other people. Particularly look for repeated mistakes, whether grammar or spelling.

The language doesn’t ring true. Scamalytics[7] describe the language used by scammers as “flowery” and “full of romantic language about trust, honesty and sincerity”. English will very likely not be their first language.

They make factual mistakes about things you’ve discussed or are inconsistent about the information they provide about themselves.  This could happen if they’re scamming lots of people at once, or if it’s a team of scammers rather than an individual.

Their messages are not specific replies to information you’ve given. Again, this indicates copying and pasting or messaging lots of people at once, or automation.

They get emotionally involved too quickly. If they start saying they love you, want to marry you, have children with you, etc before you’ve even met that is a very bad sign. Even if they’re not a scammer, they are forming an imaginary attachment and it can only be a superficial and immature one.

They become sexually intimate online. The same as above applies to becoming sexually intimate before meeting. It’s completely inappropriate and a sign of someone who isn’t able to form a healthy relationship. Of course, many daters experiment with this when they first start online dating and on its own it’s not proof of a scam. However, it’s a common strategy used, particularly when sexual frustration on the part of the victim is used: this can break down defences and make you susceptible to giving money.

They ask you a lot of questions about your identity. Scammers will ask for specific information, such as your full name, date of birth, or address. They will want to switch to email or Whatsapp (to get your phone number) quickly. They want to be your friend on Facebook. They will not give much away about themselves.

See https://scamalytics.com/how-to-spot-a-romance-scammer/ for more things to look for.

  1. What is the scammer aiming for?

Blackmail. KIS[8] warn against the possibility of online blackmail. Scammers will use private photos or videos, your surname, address, phone number, or work email address. (KIS suggest that if they send you photos or videos, they will just be pictures or videos of other victims!) Scammers may google you, find out contact details of others in your life and threaten to email the photos or videos to your family or colleagues. Blackmail is a crime which should be reported to the police.

Identity theft[9]. If your identity is stolen, this could be to open bank accounts, get credit cards, loans and state benefits, order goods online in your name, take over your existing bank accounts, take out mobile phone contracts, obtain genuine documents such as passports and driving licences in your name. It can permanently affect your credit rating, or make it impossible to get loans, credit cards or a mortgage until the matter is resolved. You may not know it has happened until you receive bills or invoices for things you haven’t ordered, or receive letters from debt collectors for debts that aren’t yours. (Below in section 5 is a list of information NOT to reveal about yourself.) Using someone else’s identity to obtain goods or money is a crime and should be reported.

Money. This can take various forms:

  • For family members’ urgent health problems. The scammer who claims to be in another country without medical insurance will create convincing stories about their children or other family which can be hard to resist once you’ve created a bond with them. Having an accident just before they are about to visit you is common.
  • For a mobile phone or laptop. They claim they can’t talk to you because they don’t have a phone and ask you to send one; or their laptop has been stolen.
  • For travel to visit you. By this stage, you will be dying to meet and you may succumb to requests for funds for a flight.
  • To replace their money and documents stolen while travelling. This again is often just before they are about to arrange to visit you, when you are most likely to succumb to requests.
  • Transfer methods are suspect. The money is often transferred using Western Union or Moneygram (which is untraceable); or to one account and then another to make the trail harder to be detected by authorities. An authority figure (e.g. doctor or lawyer may contact the victim to provide credibility for the story. If you are given bank details to transfer the money to, you can google it and will no doubt discover it’s not someone’s personal bank account, but an international clearing account or similar. This should be reported to Action Fraud[10]. However, it is very difficult to recover money transferred abroad in this way.

 

  1. How can you protect yourself?

Message people on the dating site only. Or create a separate email just for dating. Definitely don’t use a work email address. Don’t swap phone numbers until you’ve met, or at least until you’ve talked for a while online.

Don’t reveal identifying information on a dating site. For example, never put your full name or date of birth. Be vague about where you live – if asked, say South London rather than Brixton, for example- and about your job. Don’t reveal the name of the organisation you work for.

Research them on the web. Google their name plus “dating scam”; their image; and their email address. If the picture has clearly been lifted from somewhere else, report them to the dating website. This is impersonation.

Never open attachments from people you don’t know. This includes documents, videos or pictures. They could be used to infect your computer or hack into your email account.

Be careful what you put on Facebook and who you share it with. Don’t befriend people you don’t know in real life. This is especially important if you use Tinder as it connects people to your Facebook account, which may then give away information such as your job. Scammers could then find your work address and work email. Don’t post everything to ALL your friends on Facebook – create a group of close friends for posts about your personal life.

Don’t exchange intimate images or videos. They could be used to blackmail you or put on the internet.

Never give your bank details out. Never share any financial details or respond to any requests for money. Never put your bank details in an email to ANYONE, in case your email account is hacked.

Change your passwords regularly. To avoid being hacked, change email passwords, online banking passwords and dating site passwords regularly.

Check your bank accounts regularly for unknown transactions.

Check your credit rating regularly. You can use a site such as Experian[11].

Only message people in the UK (or your own country). Most scammers are from Africa (particularly Nigeria or Ghana) or Eastern Europe.

Don’t get emotionally involved before you meet. Remember you may not be messaging the person in the photo – it could be a team of scammers, or someone of the opposite gender to the photo you see in the profile. They are likely to be older and much less attractive.

Rachel New dating scam

You probably think you’re not the type to fall for this kind of thing, but it can happen to anyone. In a recent article in The Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/feb/11/internet-scams-dating-romance-money) even the researcher got involved!

In particular, if you have any friends who have recently started online dating, you might want to forward this article to them.

 

[1] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-38678089

[2][2] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/personalfinance/11113769/Online-dating-scams-new-tricks-that-fleece-victims-of-an-average-9589.html

[3] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/05/05/dating-site-scams-warning-man-conned-life-savings-fake-girlfriends/

[4] Whitty, M. T. (2015). Anatomy of the online dating romance scam. Security Journal, 28(4), 443-455.

[5]   Whitty, M. T. (2015). Anatomy of the online dating romance scam. Security Journal, 28(4), 443-455.

[6] https://www.lifewire.com/could-your-tinder-match-be-a-scam-bot-2487792

[7] https://scamalytics.com/how-to-spot-a-romance-scammer/

[8] https://www.kisbridgingloans.co.uk/guide-to-fraud-prevention/the-big-business-of-online-dating-scams/

[9] http://www.actionfraud.police.uk/ID

[10] http://www.actionfraud.police.uk/

[11] http://www.experian.co.uk

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