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Online dating has transformed from being a modest, underused and ‘hush hush’ concept – with a pinch of embarrassment – to a mainstream, popular and transformative entity. As a Pew Research Center survey from 2013 revealed, it has “lost much of its stigma”. Looking for love in the 21st century? It’s possibly a click and a swipe away. For one in five couples, that’s certainly now the case.
According to the online dating expert Julie Spira, the period between Christmas and Valentine’s Day is a remarkably busy time for dating websites. The start of the new year, it seems, is when “new singles” are most likely to sign up in a bid to find Mr. or Mrs. Right, all leading up to a wonderful date on February 14th.
However, for some, not everything is as it seems. As the Federal Bureau of Investigation has stated, cybercriminals are on the prowl, “looking to turn the lonely and vulnerable into fast money through a variety of scams”. While certain individuals are targeted in high numbers, everyone is at risk.
Still, there is plenty that people can do to protect themselves from these heartless scammers. In this feature, we highlight some of the key tactics used by these con artists. Wizening up to these wise guys will help you stay safe, secure and maybe find true love.
The “wow” profile dreams are made of
Name: Prince Charming
Address: Lives at Number 1, Really Big Castle, Fairytale Road, La La Land.
Likes: Fighting dragons and evil baddies who want to rule the world
Looking for: The Cinderella of My Dreams
Above is the totally amazing, larger than life, take your breath away profile. In this instance, fact versus fiction is rather obvious. However, this extreme example is intended to highlight the lengths that fraudsters will go to present themselves as an unbelievable catch.
Tip: Ask yourself if this profile is believable? Do they sound genuine? Is that glossy magazine profile real? Chances are it’s all smoke and mirrors, behind which is a very ugly con. Also look out for professionally written bios, as well as those that have poor grammar and spelling. These can be very telling indicators.
Behavior that is unpredictable and unusual
Prince Charming: “I saw your profile. I think you seem really cool. Let me know if you want to chat. I’m busy today. Have to save the villagers from a dragon.”
Prince Charming: “Sorry, I have to go … the mayor wants to talk about financing the rebuild of some of the village. He’s keen for financial assistance. Looks like a great opportunity for investment. Speak soon x”
If your prospective date appears to be “out of touch or out of kilter”, as Get Safe Online puts it, there is probably a very good reason for this. It’s likely to be an indicator that they are not who they say they are and that they are even making things up as they go along.
Tip: Trust your instinct – that might help. Human beings are good at picking up on things that don’t quite make sense. So, question things that seem fanciful, that have come out of the blue, that are inconsistent to what has previously been said. Sudden changes in behavior are a warning sign.
Slowly setting up the kill with manipulation
Prince Charming: “I managed to scare the dragon away. Chatting from a hospital. I’ve lost my credit card. Not sure how I’m going to pay for the treatment. Anyway, how are you?”
Prince Charming: “You’ve really surprised me, with your interest in helping put some money into the redevelopment of the village and the support you’ve shown me over the dragon attack, the skirmish with the big, bad wolf and the great battle with the Wicked Witch.”
The ability to manipulate victims is one of the key tools in the arsenal of cybercriminals. Social engineering, as it is known, is a popular tactic in online dating scams, as it helps fraudsters build trust. In the above example, Prince Charming mentions he’s in a hospital because he defeated a dragon and has lost his credit card in the skirmish. He then later lavishly compliments his prey. This is the slow build up to the kill.
Tip: If a prospective date mentions or infers that he/she needs money, a request that is heightened by drama, then almost certainly you’ve bagged yourself a cybercriminal. End the conversation, report the user and move on. Never agree to pay anyone, however unfortunate their circumstances appear to be, via an online dating website.
Moving this conversation to a ‘better arena’
Prince Charming: “What say we continue this conversation elsewhere? Via email or Facebook? It feels a lot securer than on a dating site, don’t you think? And then we can think about getting a date sorted. Exciting times ahead!”
Online dating websites are, by and large, safe platforms where people can chat to one another in an environment where they have a certain degree of control and protection. This isn’t, of course, conducive to what a cybercriminal is eager to achieve, hence, very early on, they will be eager to move the conversation beyond the website. This will often be framed in a way that suggests the relationship is evolving and becoming more serious.
Tip: As with sudden declarations of love, swift, impromptu requests to take the conversation to another platform outside of the dating website are demonstrative of questionable behavior. There really isn’t a good enough reason to do this, other than it allows a con artist to direct their victims to a space where they know they can gain leverage. Vigilance is essential.
Author Editor, ESET