Features, Insight, Opinion

From hearts to hackers: Don’t let romance scammers steal more than your love

Doros Hadjizenonos, Regional Director at leading cybersecurity specialists Fortinet, outlines the growing number of fraudsters present within online dating apps and identifies several warning signs for individuals looking to engage with a potential romantic partner online.

With hundreds of millions of people using online dating platforms and nearly five billion using social media, the online space offers a rich hunting ground for scammers. Researchers at Georgia State University found scammers often target people who are newly single, wealthy, or inexperienced with using online platforms. However, people of all ages and from all walks of life have fallen victim.

Doros Hadjizenonos, Regional Director at leading cybersecurity specialists Fortinet, says fraudsters target users of social media and online dating apps in growing numbers. “So-called romance scammers typically create fake profiles to interact with users, build a relationship, and ultimately manipulate them to extract money,” he says. This may result in both financial losses and emotional trauma.

In the US alone, around 24,000 people collectively lost nearly $1 billion to romance scammers in 2021, according to the FBI. In the UK, the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau (NFIB) received 8,036 reports of romance fraud in the past year, with total losses amounting to over £92 million. In South Africa, there is an increase in reported romance scams, leading to some victims losing millions, their life savings, or their pensions.

Hadjizenonos notes that technology is helping romance scammers become even more sophisticated. “Deepfake photos, voice calls and videos, and letters or poems written by GenAI like ChatGPT, can be very convincing,” he says.

He believes AI could be used by social media platforms and dating sites to help reduce the risk to their users. “AI-enabled analytics can be used to pick up patterns in chats and raise alerts – without compromising individual users’ privacy,” he says. These tools could spot warning signs like persistent requests for personal details or money. “Platforms could also use biometric data to verify users against government identity systems.”

The most important measure to protect users against romance scams is awareness, he says. “People need to be very cautious online. They should think twice about sharing personal information, sending people money or private photos, or entertaining offers related to get rich quick schemes. They should also make use of the platform’s privacy settings and research their love interest’s social media footprint – if there’s no history and just one photo, this should be a red flag,” he says. “Scammers often steal other people’s profile pictures, so a reverse image search may indicate whether the new contact is who they say they are.”

Fortinet has highlighted several warning signs that individuals should be mindful of when engaging with a potential romantic partner online. These include:

  • Love bombing: Rapid declarations of love, discussions of marriage, and excessive flattery.
  • Distance: Persistent excuses for being unable to meet in person, such as remote work locations, living in another country, military postings, or frequent travel, along with a reluctance to engage in phone or video calls.
  • Requests for money: Initial small requests that gradually escalate to larger sums.
  • Unsolicited investment advice: Claims of being a skilled investor and promises to help make easy money.
  • Drama: Seeking urgent financial assistance under the pretense of a medical emergency, accident, arrest, or other unforeseen events, often accompanied by a plausible explanation for their inability to access their funds.
  • Requests for explicit photos: Seeking private photos that could be exploited for extortion.
  • Inconsistencies in communication style: Multiple scammers taking turns to manipulate the victim.

Being aware of these red flags can help individuals protect themselves from potential romance scams and online exploitation. “Remain open to the magic of finding love this Valentine’s Day, but remember to tread carefully and stay vigilant. It’s crucial not to let romance cloud your judgment”, Hadjizenonos concludes.

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