February 13, 2017

Online relationships: Are you dating a scammer?

Privacy Security

Before the advent of Internet dating, we used to head to various places to socialize and meet people — bars, pubs, clubs, parties, weddings, places of worship, and even the library. It took physical effort and mental courage to walk up to someone and introduce oneself.

Now, with online dating websites and apps, it has become easy to find a partner — or in this case, a match — even from a different country if you wish. You can start judging the person by looking at their picture and reading their profile details to see if they might be your type.

Computers and servers in these virtual dating agencies filter the millions of people in their databases to find your closest match based on various criteria. You can scroll through profiles of people near you on your smartphone and send them a flirty text copied from a Google search, avoiding the effort and anxiety of thinking of what you would like to say to your match.

On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog

Let’s say you’re scrolling through profiles on a dating site and you spot a nice woman who you might like to date. You send her a message, and she responds, saying she wants to get to know you! She wants to talk to you!

But behind the guise of that sweet-sounding woman may actually be a man — a cybercriminal who only wants to get your phone number to scam you.

Last year, Russian police arrested two men from Smolensk who pretended to be young, attractive girls stealing the hearts of men in Moscow and then threatening and tricking them into sending large sums of money. The criminals were found to have taken roughly 1 million Russian rubles (about US $16,500) with this scheme.

Now, some of you may be thinking that we’re calling men are more gullible, but cases abound of women being scammed out of money by internet lovers as well. However, we may never know the whole story: Many victims, especially married people, keep silent.

Also, there are other kinds of fraud — for example, accounts created by website employees to create the impression of more women being registered on the site than there actually are.  Some sites use to lure newcomers into chatting and get them to pay money to continue their conversations.

Anyone can be reeled in. Monica Whitty, a psychologist from the UK’s University of Leicester, explains the situation: “You don’t have to be ‘vulnerable.’ You can be a highly intelligent person with a good job. The strategies these fraudsters use are highly sophisticated.”

Whitty, whose field is cyber-psychology, has acquired much experience working with victims of romance frauds. In her view, victims experience double pressure: They blame themselves, and their friends and relatives blame them as well. Most crime victims receive sympathy and support, Whitty points out, but with online fraud, friends and family often blame the victim. “Their response is, ‘How could you be so gullible?'”

Valentine’s Day cometh

As we approach the official day of love, many of us will receive the traditional anonymous valentines — albeit in digital form. It usually doesn’t take a rocket scientist to guess the sender, but sometimes, the admirer is actually unknown. In those cases, curiosity is only natural, but stay vigilant — instead of romance, such e-cards may lead to malware, real money loss, or both.

Of course, installing a reliable Internet security suite such as Kaspersky Internet Security will protect you from malware and malicious links, but it will not protect you from a broken heart, unfortunately.

So to keep you safe from heartbreak and scams this Valentine’s Day, we have put together a list of common scams and some tips to help you stay safe.

Scam: Mutual connection

In this scam, a stranger contacts you through social channels and claims a common interest or a mutual connection, for example, from an introduction at a wedding or large gathering. If you post a lot of pictures and haven’t updated your privacy settings, it’s easy for cyber-criminals to make some educated guesses about how best to approach you.

Tip: If you receive such a claim, even if you’d really like to meet someone new, dismiss the conversation and don’t add that person as a friend. Also, update your privacy settings to share your photos and posts only with people you really know.

Scam: Intimate activity

Shame continues to be a reliable way to extort money. This kind of scam is most typical in a new, long-distance Internet-dating relationship. After an intense courtship period, the scammer asks the victim to connect with them via webcam and chat. The fraudster’s webcam is mysteriously broken, but they heap praise on their victim and, with a combination of flattery and persistence, persuade them to take off their clothes or perform other intimate acts. The scammer then reveals their true identity. They claim to have made a video recording and threaten to share the video with mutual social media friends or post the re-cording online unless the victim sends money. Once the victim complies, the cycle begins anew, with demands increasing until the victim finally refuses.

Tip: If it involves a webcam, refuse all requests, no matter what they are. If the relationship is real, you can wait to meet each other in person.

Scam: Fake dating sites

Remember the Ashley Madison leak? That case offered a glimpse into the world of fake dating sites. The services claim to offer legitimate hookups, but they are either severely underpopulated or awash with scammers and bots.

Tip: Look out for sign-up questionnaires that are light on personal details but heavy on financial info. Also watch for a deluge of attention just after you create your profile. If your profile contains just a few lines of text, no photo, and no set preferences, but you start getting message after message from potential suitors, chances are you’ve stumbled across a fake dating site.

Scam alert signs

Other things to pay attention to even on legitimate dating sites — let’s face it, scammers are everywhere — include the following:

Suspicious spelling and grammar

If they supposedly come from an English-speaking nation, be on the lookout for awful spelling and grammar. Not everyone looking for love online has the soul and finesse of William Shakespeare — and there’s certainly nothing wrong with not being a native English speaker — but scammers often cross borders electronically in search of new victims, and so truly terrible grammar is a red flag. The same goes for e-mails. Native English speakers have a natural cadence when they speak and write that isn’t easily mimicked. Be suspicious if something seems “off” about the tone or pacing.

Cut-and-paste

If messages and profile descriptions read too well, pay attention. Often, scammers won’t bother writing their own material but instead lift it from other websites or dating profiles. Run suspiciously perfect text through an Internet search to see if any matches come up. If they do, don’t message or respond to the con-artist.

Weird links

Legitimate users often post links to their favorite bands, travel destinations, or hobbies. Scammers typically fill their profiles with links to low-quality sites that are trying to sell a product or teach you to “get rich quick.” You may also find links to X-rated websites — a blatant warning sign that a profile isn’t entirely legitimate.

Double-time

Strong feelings often abound during the first few weeks of any new romance, but scammers try to accelerate this process even further by offering not only a huge volume of compliments and kind words, but also intimate details of their own life that they have “never shared with anyone else.” What can be even more troubling is if after just a few chat sessions or e-mails, they’re asking for a small amount of money to cover strange expenses — perhaps they’re stranded in a foreign country, have a family member in medical distress, or have just been robbed. Whatever the situation, they need you to wire transfer money ASAP. If requests for money are ever on the table, walk away.

Have a safe date

In short, online dating is just another part of the online world. Similar dangers lurk everywhere online; dating sites just happen to bring out creeps who specialize in exploiting people who have made themselves somewhat emotionally vulnerable. The solution isn’t to avoid dating sites any more than it is to avoid social media or shopping or getting news online. Rather, stay informed and alert to navigate safely and with confidence.