Researchers at Georgia State University have revealed some of the tactics used by scammers to target those looking for love in the “Wild West” of online dating, with guilt-tripping and faking emergencies among the most effective techniques used to manipulate victims.
According to Volkan Topalli, a professor of Criminal Justice and Criminology at the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies and an associate with Georgia State's Evidence-Based Cybersecurity Research Group, the phenomenon of "romance fraud" is frequently underreported and overlooked. He and his colleagues have published a recent study on this subject in the American Journal of Criminal Justice.
“We have this explosion of crime taking place online,” says Topalli. “In the physical world, maybe you can scam one or two people at a time. But thanks to social media and technology, a scammer can send an email or chat message to hundreds of people at once, just trawling for victims. The scammers are effective because they are experts in extracting funds from people, and they’re also experts in identifying a vulnerable target.”
A cybercrime report published by the FBI in 2021 found that online romance fraud losses have skyrocketed in recent years, reaching almost US$956 million. That makes it the third-ranked cybercrime overall in terms of losses.
The Georgia State study’s primary author, Fangzhou Wang, is a doctoral student in the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology. She says the goal of the research was to identify risk and protective factors for those targeted by so-called romance scammers to develop a model for victim vulnerability and resilience.
“We really wanted to take advantage of open intelligence data sources to find out what these fraudsters were doing that was so effective. The purpose is to identify patterns and uncover strategies that users can adopt to protect themselves,” says Wang.
Victims found on Tinder, Ashley Madison, and OkCupid
The study conducted by the researchers was based on data gathered from online testimonials posted on websites such as stop-scammers.com and male-scammers.com. They reviewed nearly 10,000 vetted reports from victims who shared their experiences to warn others. The researchers utilised data analysis software to create a database of romance fraud victims using the testimonials as a foundation for analysis and then analysed the stories to uncover common themes.
The testimonials included accounts from victims who were approached on social networks like Facebook and Twitter and dating sites like Tinder, Ashley Madison, and OkCupid.
The analysis revealed several prevalent and effective techniques used by scammers, including using emotional triggers, manufacturing a crisis, exploiting likability and similarity, and eliciting the victim's guilt.
Another common tactic used by scammers is to move the relationship away from the dating app to a private email or messaging platform, such as WhatsApp or Google Hangouts, to isolate the victim. Scammers often pressure the victim to make quick decisions and refuse to have conversations on the phone or send recent photographs.
Asking for money is the biggest red flag that someone is a scammer. To avoid falling victim to romance fraud, it is recommended to consult a trusted friend or family member about the new online relationship.
Victims refuse to accept when they’ve been had
The researchers also identified common risk factors for potential victims, including a lack of familiarity with technology, overconfidence or inexperience among young people, and those who have been through broken relationships and are seeking companionship. It is believed that the number of victims is significantly underestimated due to factors such as victim shame or self-incrimination, and sometimes victims may not even accept that they have been scammed even when presented with evidence.
“They’re sort of hoping against hope that it’s a real thing,” says Topalli. “There are numerous stories of people who just say, ‘No, I love this person, you’ve got it wrong’ and then they will continue in the relationship. It’s painful to hear the stories.”
Wang says that since fraudsters tend to use very similar linguistic cues to deceive victims, online service providers could develop algorithm-based predictive tools to detect fraudulent attempts against potential victims that can be built into dating and social media sites.
“Potentially, dating and social networking sites can draw from the information from our study to launch educational or awareness programs for those who were previously victims and those who may be potential victims,” says Wang.
Romance fraud often results in financial loss and long-lasting psychological trauma. The research indicates that victims of online romance scams undergo a traumatic psychological aftermath similar to victims of domestic violence. Wang says she plans to explore further research utilising surveys and interviews to dive deeper into the mindsets of offenders and victims in the cyber world.
“There’s nothing wrong with starting a relationship online,” says Topalli. “But you’re basically putting yourself out in the Wild West. You always want to keep in mind what we call ‘cyber hygiene,’ which means really looking at your interactions online and the apps that you use and being very cognizant of protecting yourself.”