Romance fraud is catching out many internet users, and it is costly in numerous ways
It has been happening since the 16th century; an apparently wealthy Spanish man pleaded the financial aid of a family member to bribe his way out of charges for which he had been imprisoned. The promise of repayment beyond what would be given may have intrigued many, especially when marriage to the man’s daughter formed part of the repayment. But alas, there was no wealthy family relative, no daughter and, of course, no lucrative repayments. The only gains here were snatched by the fraudster that managed to dupe his naive victims.
These exact themes, believable or not, are still found today on the world wide web. These scams, known as romance fraud, now conducted through email, instant messaging services and other forms of social media, cost millions to various internet users every year. According to the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau, the amount of money victims of romance fraud lost in 2016 was nearly £40 million.
Although conducted through various means, often it is dating sites or apps where these kinds of scams take place. Thus, platforms such as Tinder, Happn, Badoo and Bumble are hot places for fraudsters to fool lustful users. Although, other popular social platforms like Facebook can also work well.
The essence of these kinds of cyber frauds is to take advantage of potent and powerful emotions. By presenting an illusion of affection and love through an artificial relationship only existing in a virtual capacity, fraudsters can, quite easily, persuade victims to send sums of money and gifts to fuel the apparent romance. Numerous stories of victims of romance fraud essentially spending all of their savings on their partner, who, in the end, never really existed at all, have surfaced over the years as online dating increases in popularity.
The internet works especially well for this due to the anonymity of it; there is no definitive or way of accurately identifying people on the web and their true motives. One can easily create fake profiles, using random pictures and false information but present them in a way which appears genuine. This, combined with the manipulation of potent emotions, can seduce even the most “tech-savvy” of users. Earlier this month, a story by AARP (American Association of Retired People) revealed how a woman, who was a business owner and even had a website for her company, was duped by a romance scam. She had lost $300,000 as a result, which was all of her savings.
Establishing a false romantic relationship enforces a sense of trust and comfort, which leads victims to commit such generous donations. Fraudsters will claim that they need such money to buy plane tickets to visit, or concoct a story about a sick relative desperately in need of funds to pay for life-saving surgery or medical treatment. These scenarios may be obviously suspicious to an outsider, but for those in the midst of what they genuinely believe to be a meaningful and tangible relationship, fooled by a phoney charm and seemingly authentic affection, such a thought may never pass their mind.
There are few problems which arise with this modern type of fraud in terms of remedying losses and achieving justice for those who have been wronged. The first is that, due to the nature of many of these cases, people are often too embarrassed and ashamed to admit to authorities that they have been victims of this trickery. But even if they were not too ashamed to report it, the sheer mass of complaints filed throughout the year makes it an incredibly difficult task for the police or other law enforcement agencies to look into the cases. The Internet Crime Complaint Centre (ICCC) in 2011 received 314,246 complaints, over 5,000 of which were related to romance fraud.
The second problem is that even if investigations were to be conducted, finding the culprit responsible is another immense task. By the time a victim’s losses are adhered to, the fraudsters may have already cut ties and deleted their online accounts, making tracing them almost impossible.
Romance fraud, therefore, appears to be almost a perfect crime. As these online criminals continue to improve their methods to appear more convincing, the number people falling victim to such fraud seems unlikely to fall. One possible solution would be to educate users on the pitfalls and dangers of online dating, and the social engineering taking place online in general. Such information could be especially valuable for younger users, most notably younger teenagers, whose naivety and innocence may make them particularly vulnerable. However, the report by the ICCC found that fraudsters mainly focused on those over 40, disabled, elderly or divorced or widowed. A broader awareness of the dangers of the internet might, then, be better.
Online dating platforms may attempt to crack down on phoney accounts and profiles, but such a task is always tough; some always manage to slip through. Distinguishing between genuine and fraudulent accounts is not straightforward at all. Thus, the onus mainly rests on the users themselves to avoid the digital traps of the internet. As they try, they should remember that if it seems too good to be true, it probably isn’t.