How Online Dating Scams Work and Who Gets Targeted

From a Wall Street Journal story by Bart Ziegler headlined “How Online Dating Scams Work—and Who Gets Targeted”:

About 30% of Americans have tried an online dating service, according to Pew Research Service. Some people have found compatible matches and even longtime partners. But other online romance ventures have ended in frustration, harassment or outright fraud.

Some of the saddest cases have seen people give hundreds or thousands of dollars to someone they met online. Some think they are lending money to help the person through a rough patch. Others believe they are being let in on a savvy investment. Both realize too late—it was a scam.

Americans reported losing nearly $1.3 billion in romance-related fraud from 2017 to 2021, according to the Federal Trade Commission, greater than any other category of fraud tracked by the agency, including online shopping scams, impostor fraud and identity theft. Even so, the FTC says that likely understates the damage since many people don’t report such losses.

To better understand why some people become victims of online dating scams, and what can be done to prevent it, The Wall Street Journal interviewed Gurpreet Dhillon, chair of artificial intelligence and cybersecurity at the University of North Texas. Dr. Dhillon has researched such fraud and considers it a major online security concern.

WSJ: Describe how an online dating scam usually begins.

DR. DHILLON: Usually, the search by the scammer for a victim starts on one of the many dating platforms. More recently, scammers also have begun targeting the more ethnically oriented dating sites as well.

Scammers typically target older, poorer, less educated and single people. They also scan dating and social-media profiles to find people who idealize romantic partners and relationships and so might be more gullible.

WSJ: What typically happens next?

DR. DHILLON: The victim is usually presented with a picture of an attractive man or woman. Typically, a perpetrator emphasizes his or her credibility and social attractiveness. Scammers often present themselves as individuals with some sort of authority, such as an influential businessperson, military personnel, a research scientist, etc.

Typically, a scammer also creates a false identity, not just on social media but by acquiring an identity document. In our research, we found many occasions where the eventual victim had asked to see an ID while in the online phase of a romance, or in person if the romance advances to that point. But scammers are savvy about creating authentic-looking fake IDs. If the person is too quick to share his or her ID, it is more likely to be fake.

WSJ: What other techniques do perpetrators use?

DR. DHILLON: Scammers sometimes use doctored pictures to show themselves with famous personalities. Some may use “deep fake” software, which allows a person to swap his or her face for that of someone else’s in a photo or video. Scammers will often research their victims to see whom they admire.

In one case in our research, the perpetrator claimed to be a nurse working at a military base in the Middle East and sent pictures of what she said was herself dressed in scrubs. At one point she sent pictures of herself with a purported Army general she said was visiting the base.

Based on information gathered during the grooming stage, the scammer expresses enthusiasm for individuals or institutions in which the victim may place trust—alumni networks, church or celebrity connections. The more successful scammers spend significant time and effort on the grooming stage before engaging in an actual fraudulent act.

WSJ: How does a scammer establish trust?

DR. DHILLON: In one elaborate scheme, a scammer reached out to the victim via Facebook, then used the publicly available information there to investigate friends and connections of the victim. The information was later used to establish social connections with the victim. Online interactions resulted in face-to-face meetings, a false promise of love and eventually a story of financial trouble and the need for help. This “spear social-engineering” attack emphasized similar likes and dislikes to that of the victim.

WSJ: How does the scammer persuade a victim to turn over money?

DR. DHILLON: The scammer may send a small gift or flowers to the victim. In return, the victim may comply with a request to send a small amount of money. Research suggests that when people comply with the first request they are more likely to comply with subsequent requests.

In one case, a 50-year-old woman was scammed by a perpetrator who posed as a high-ranking military official. The perpetrator was quite knowledgeable about military jargon and the subtleties of the job. The woman began trusting the scammer since her dad was a veteran. After establishing trust, the scammer started sending small gifts. This continued for over a year, after which the scammer asked for $5,000 on the pretext of paying a credit-card bill. The excuse was that his salary wasn’t released as he was moving back after military deployment. The scammer returned the $5,000 after about a week. A series of requests followed this, resulting in a total of $250,000 given to the scammer. All along, the victim kept believing in the individual and was confident that he would return the money. He never did.

WSJ: Do some scammers seek things beyond financial gain?

DR. DHILLON: Extorting sexual favors has been widely reported. This can happen when the perpetrator threatens the victim with distributing sexual images or intimate messages procured in the grooming stage. Sometimes a scam may result in identity theft or involuntary involvement in money laundering. In other cases, victims have been used as couriers for smuggling drugs, money and other goods.

WSJ: Why do people fall for these hoaxes?

DR. DHILLON: Romance scammers create situations with an increased likelihood of poor decision-making.

Scammers also focus on visceral triggers, where the victim believes there are significant benefits to such a relationship. In one case, the scammer insisted on the victim joining an insurance pyramid scheme, where each participant recruits and sells insurance policies to others. In the process, the scammer was showcasing the engagement’s potential profitability. The ground was being set for a potentially bigger scam.

WSJ: What types of people seem more likely to be taken in?

DR. DHILLON: While little is known about victims of romance scams, women are reported to lose the more significant sums of money. In the majority of cases, the victims are older than 40, with 50 to 59 being the most vulnerable. Data also suggest that the degree of financial loss increases with the age of the victim.

WSJ: What could dating sites do to curtail scams?

DR. DHILLON: Dating sites should have built-in technical trust-building mechanisms. Simple two-factor authentication can substantially reduce the number of fake accounts by weeding out less-sophisticated scammers. The industry also needs to develop a web-assurance seal program—an outside agency that monitors and ensures that sites comply with the policies.

WSJ: What laws are used to prosecute scammers? Are additional government actions needed?

DR. DHILLON: Electronic-theft and economic-espionage statutes can be applied in certain cases, and in others the statutes called Access Device Fraud can be applied.

The problem, however, isn’t with the legal framework. The problem is ensuring that individuals are sufficiently warned and aware of the nature, scope and breadth of romance scams. At the federal level, a governance framework is required to mandate that dating websites operate in a certain manner. Just like the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act exists for the healthcare domain, something similar is required for online dating platforms.

Bart Ziegler is a former Wall Street Journal reporter and editor.

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