Online Confidence Tricksters: How Can You Trust Your Cyber Partner?

By Kaspersky Lab The stigma of internet dating has decreased over the last decade with more than 15% of Americans having used mobile or online dating apps and services. Far from being viewed as a realm for only the desperate and un-dateable, online dating is viewed as a convenient and safe way to meet a […]

By Kaspersky Lab

The stigma of internet dating has decreased over the last decade with more than 15% of Americans having used mobile or online dating apps and services. Far from being viewed as a realm for only the desperate and un-dateable, online dating is viewed as a convenient and safe way to meet a potential partner. In fact, over half of Americans (59%) polled in 2015 agreed that online dating was a good way to meet people. In the UK, over 7 million people have used online dating in 2016, up from just 100,000 people in 2000.

The Rise in Popularity of Online Dating

Not only that but the demographics of those using the internet to meet people has dramatically changed. In 2005, the predominant age group of people seeking a relationship online was in 25-44 year olds (39%) yet in 2015 the biggest proportion of users was in the 18-24-year range (27%).

With online dating seeing a huge growth in the numbers of users and experts predicting that half of all relationships will begin this way by 2050, just how sure can you be that the person you are sharing your life with isn’t a scammer?

Okay, so it might seem cynical to imagine that behind every online profile lurks a potential scam artist but the lifestyle sections of many magazines are always littered with stories of women (and men) who have fallen victim to confidence tricksters that they met online.

Who’s Behind the Profile?

As well as offering convenience and immediacy, online dating also nurtures an environment of anonymity that can help people connect and get to know one another without the traditional awkwardness that face-to-face interaction can generate. It allows people to put their best selves forward; an edited and ‘safe’ representation of themselves. As a result of wanting to attract a mate, photos are carefully selected, profiles ‘creatively’ tweaked and communication highly edited. Anyone navigating the world of online dating can often read between the lines and quickly become adept at spotting where, and how, people have stretched the truth in an effort to present themselves in a more appealing light. However, there are many cybercriminals who are highly skilled at using online dating services who know how to appear genuine.

Often running several campaigns at once, these organised individuals get involved with a variety of people and commit for a long term online scam. Sometimes operating in large networks and creating elaborate scenarios, it can take a long term before the extent of the deceit is obvious.

What’s the Threat?

When you read the stories in the press about how someone was defrauded online it can be easy to depict the victim as gullible and naïve. It can be easy to imagine that we would never find ourselves so easily taken in but it can be precisely this attitude that works to the trickster’s advantage. If you were simply asked to send money to someone you hadn’t met then most people would quite clearly hear alarm bells but when you build up a relationship online over a period of time, you form a bond of trust and a well-run scam will take advantage of your personality. In getting to know you, fraudsters will learn about what motivates you, how you operate and what kind of cons you would and would not fall for. When it comes to dating, we wear our hearts on our sleeves and it is precisely these traits that allow criminals to exploit us.

In fact, most people who have been taken in by online fraudsters would not describe themselves as ‘vulnerable’ or ‘gullible’. Far from being the chosen subject of such scams, criminals prefer to target intelligent individuals who have good jobs.

In 2016, it is estimated by the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau that almost £40 million was obtained criminally as a result of singles being conned via online dating sites. Each case is highly individual but all involve the same motivation and means; gaining someone’s trust in order to obtain money.

Common Scams

If you received a response to your online dating profile immediately asking how much you earned and if you owned your own home then you would probably block the user immediately. However, online scams aren’t usually so obvious and can take many weeks, even months, to build up to a climax.

Common Scam #1: Blackmail

Shame continues to be a big motivator in the world of online scams with people being prepared to part with large sums of money to avoid being exposed. Online dating offers fraudsters the ideal set-up to collect intimate and personal details as well as images with which to blackmail their victims. A common way to extort money is by securing photo or video evidence of a victim in a compromising way (often involving nudity) before revealing themselves to be a fraudster. The criminal then asks for a relatively small amount of cash to delete the images. Once this first payment has been made then the perpetrator has a green light to ask for more and more. By indicating that there is value in an image (or other evidence) remaining confidential the victim can expect to receive further threats of exposure in return for more cash.

Always remain cautious about sending compromising images or posing in front of a webcam. If the person you are communicating with really wants to see you in this way then you should meet them first. Even then, the security of such material is always questionable so the best advice is not to participate at all.

Common Scam #2: Mutual Acquaintances

We all know how easy it is to be found using social media and how our networks blossom as a result of adding new connections that are ‘Suggested’ to us. We can often check the authenticity of these by seeing how many mutual friends we share. Don’t be fooled by this low-level checking mechanism. Just because someone you know has ‘friended’ a user doesn’t mean that they are who they purport to be. If your (or your friends) privacy settings aren’t up to scratch then it is relatively easy to infiltrate a network using some educated guesses around a few public posts. Weddings are a great example of how scammers can become added to social networks and end up in the mix. Only ever add people to your social networks that you know you can authenticate. If someone claims to know you through a mutual acquaintance then do some homework and check before you accept their invitation to connect.

Common Scam #3: The ‘Unexpected’ Event

If you are networking with someone online either via a dating app or service or via social networking then always be wary of the ‘unexpected’ event. Oftentimes this can prevent your meeting up or can seem unrelated to you but nevertheless a significant problem to your contact. More often than not there is some cost involved to removing the problem but usually you will not be asked for money at this stage. You may even offer and your offer is likely to be refused. This is key to gaining your trust and will make the next ‘unexpected’ event far more likely to pay off for the fraudster. Always be wary of elaborate mishaps and events that prevent you from meeting up with someone in real life. Though they can seem plausible, in reality it is not that difficult for two consenting adults to meet in person…if they are both who they say they are.

Common Scam #4: Fake Dating Sites

There has been a huge rise in internet dating sites to meet the demand for the upsurge in interested parties. A potentially lucrative business, many new online dating services purports to have thousands of singles in your area yet, as new businesses, do not have the profiles to back this up. The result is a mix of fake profiles being run by the company themselves or an outsourcing of profiles to users in foreign countries. Whilst the worst likelihood of this scam is getting interested in someone who isn’t real, there is a potential that the company you have registered your profile with is wholesaling lonely hearts to potential scam artists. A clear giveaway on these sites is the almost instantaneous results that you get after simply registering online. Within an hour of creating (even a thin) profile, you will have received a handful of people who are interested in you.

How to Avoid Being Scammed in an Online Relationship

Of course, when it comes to malware and viruses you can simply install a firewall and keep your anti-virus protection up to date but, when it comes to keeping you safe from malicious attacks of confidence you will need to employ good old-fashioned common sense.

The Warning Signs

  • They don’t use good English yet purport to be from an English speaking country. Bad spelling and grammar aren’t crimes and we can all suffer from the odd typo but be wary of odd turns of phrase or language that isn’t in keeping with native English.
  • Their language is too perfect. Okay, so this may sound at odds with the previous advice but text that is a little too flowery or perfectly written can indicate that they have used it before and is simply a case of being cut and paste. Running so many scams can make fraudsters lazy so they can repeat certain information, particularly in their profiles. Run the text through a search engine and see how many matches it brings up. If you can match large amounts across several other dating sites under different names then this should be the red flag you are looking for.
  • They instantly fall for you in a big way. Whilst we don’t want to plant the seeds of doubt when it comes to finding love online, the propensity of scammers to foster an instantaneous connection is legendary. If you find that within days of making their acquaintance they are confessing true love, having never felt this way about someone before then be on your guard.
  • Any request for money. Whatever the situation, there are always alternatives to getting funds in an emergency rather than someone you have just met online who you have never met. However dire the situation, take a moment to reflect on the facts and walk away.

Lastly, we don’t want to leave you too cynically on the subject of online dating, as it can be a richly fulfilling way to meet new people and to get genuine dates. All you need to do is to be aware of the potential risks and be cautious.