ATLANTA — Plenty of people still throw around the 16th century proverb “all is fair in love and war,” but the Renaissance never had to contend with mobile dating apps. Eye-opening new research by a team at Georgia State University reveals just how treacherous the world of online dating is becoming, and some of the most common tactics scammers are using to steal a quick buck.
This project was led by 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. Professor Topalli explains that the ever-expanding problem of “romance fraud” is currently both underreported and understudied.
“We have this explosion of crime taking place online. 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,” Topalli says in a university release. “The scammers are effective because they are experts in extracting funds from people, and they’re also experts in identifying a vulnerable target.”
How does a dating app scam work?
The first step to almost any scam or grift, online or in-person, is to build trust with the “mark” — the intended victim of the scam. When someone is innocently using a dating app in search of a connection, they’re already in a vulnerable position by putting themselves out there romantically. Unfortunately, there’s no shortage of shameless scammers ready and willing to deceive dating app users using compliments, fake pictures, and even elaborate stories that inevitably end with “I’ll pay you back later for some money now.”
A cybercrime report by the FBI in 2021 found that online romance fraud losses have skyrocketed in recent years, reaching close to $956 million. Those numbers make romance fraud the third-ranked cybercrime overall in terms of losses.
Fangzhou Wang, the study’s primary author and a doctoral student in the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology, notes that the main goal of this research is to identify risk and protective factors for those targeted by so-called romance scammers. Ideally, these efforts will help 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,” Wang adds.
Avoid taking conversations into private chats
The team gathered data from various online testimonials posted to websites where victims share stories and warn others — including stop-scammers.com and male-scammers.com. All in all, study authors reviewed close to 10,000 vetted reports. Next, using data analysis software, they created a romance fraud victim database using the testimonials as a basis for analysis. The following step entailed assessing victims’ stories to identify any overarching or repeating themes. The testimonials came from victims who were contacted by scammers across various online platforms, from social media networks like Twitter and Facebook, to dating apps and websites like Tinder, Ashley Madison, and OkCupid.
Study authors identified a number of techniques and strategies that were most common and most successful for scammers. Examples include using visceral, emotional triggers or influences, manufacturing a crisis, exploiting likability and similarity, or eliciting the target’s sense of guilt.
Another big red flag to look out for: scammers usually ask their victims to move the conversation away from the app to a private email or messaging format (like WhatsApp or Google Hangout) as soon as possible. This is how scammers isolate the target. It’s also very common for scammers to pressure their targets into making quick decisions.
That’s not all. Additional warning signs include online suitors refusing to have conversations on the phone and never sending any recent photographs. First and foremost, however, the biggest warning sign is if someone asks you for money. Prof. Topalli even suggests checking any new online relationship against a third party, like a trusted friend or family member.
Who are most vulnerable to dating scammers?
Researchers identified some common risk factors among the targets of cybercrime as well, such as a lack of familiarity with technology (especially among older people). Young people can fall for a dating scam too, though, especially if they are overconfident or inexperienced with initiating a relationship online. Others also at risk from scammers include people coming out of broken relationships and those just looking for companionship.
In summation, researchers stress that it is very likely that the true number of online dating victims is much higher than estimates say, especially if you consider factors such as victim shame or even self-incrimination. In some cases, a victim will refuse to admit to themselves they’ve been scammed, even when presented with clear evidence.
“They’re sort of hoping against hope that it’s a real thing. 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,” Prof. Topalli continues. “It’s painful to hear the stories.”
So, what can dating apps do about this problem?
Wang explains that scammers usually stick to a fairly simple “script” while deceiving others, so online service providers should be able to develop algorithm-based predictive tools capable of detecting fraudulent attempts against potential victims. Those algorithms could then be built into various 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,” Wang comments.
When someone is scammed while looking for love, it can be detrimental to whole lot more than just their wallet. These experiences can result in long-lasting psychological trauma. Prior studies tell us that victims of online romance scams often experience traumatic psychological aftermath similar to victims of domestic violence.
“There’s nothing wrong with starting a relationship online. But you’re basically putting yourself out in the Wild West,” Prof. Topalli concludes. “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.”
The study is published in the American Journal of Criminal Justice.