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What Is a Romance Scam and Why Does It Work?


    Roses are red, violets are blue! If you run a dating site, beware of scammers too! It’s not all rosy in the world of online dating so protect your members and business reputation from falling victim to fraud and illegal activities.

    Online dating sites are more popular than ever but as their business potential grows, so does the possibility of scams and frauds being carried out through them. Take a look at these staggering numbers:

    • According to the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission, almost $23 million was reportedly lost to dating scams in 2015.
    • The UK’s National Fraud Intelligence Bureau reported a loss of almost £27 million between Oct 2014- Nov 2015 due to romance fraudsters and 64% of these scams originated on dating sites!
    • In just the last 6 months of 2014, Americans lost almost $82 million to online dating fraud, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

    In response to these incidents, steps have been taken by the industry. For example, the Online Dating Association (ODA) was set up in the UK in 2013 as a trade body to set and maintain standards for online dating service providers. On the other side of the world, the FBI has issued a recommendation to only use online dating websites ‘with nationally known reputations’.

    These measures are a warning sign and a good opportunity for dating site professionals to stand out from the competition. By amplifying the security and moderation mechanisms of their websites they can enhance their reputations and grow their customer base. The earlier the site can weed out potential scammers, the better it is for their user-traffic, growth and as such their bottom line.

    What Is a Dating Scam?

    Before we head into the details of how to deal with dating or romance scams as they are also called, let’s have a look at how they actually play out.

    Romance scams are mostly done through catfishing, named so after the 2010 highly acclaimed American documentary “Catfish”. Catfishing is when someone fabricates an online identity in order to build trust with their victims. Once trust is built the perpetrator will attempt to lure favors, money or personal information out of the victim.

    The end goal for the perp can be anything from petty theft to money laundering. Yes! Romance scams could end up causing the victim to become involved in criminal activities unknowingly.

    The Usual Romance Scam Setup

    Most romance scams follow the same recipe. The perpetrator will reach out to as many likely victims as possible through dating sites or social media channels like Facebook.

    If the victim is female, the scammer will mostly be using the photos of good looking (but not model material), mature men and often claiming to be either military, businessmen that travel often, or missionary/doctor abroad.  The aim is to portray someone successful and trustworthy.

    If the victim is male, the scammer will take on the face of a younger, modelesque female. They will commonly highlight that they are caring and good house wives.

    In most cases the scammer will very rapidly escalate the relationship, by quickly declaring that they have fallen in love with the victim. Sometimes, however, they are also running the scheme as a long con, where they build up the relationship over months before making the first grab for profit.

    Once the scammer feels that they have the victim hooked they will start asking for money or favors. They will usually start out slow, applying the time-tested psychological foot-in-the-door technique. First they will ask for a smaller amount of money or a tiny favor and from there gradually ramp it up. The more the victim gives the less they want to believe that it is a scam, even when the requests and circumstances/excuses/stories become increasingly absurd.

    It can take a long time before the victim admits to themselves that they have fallen for a scam and even then, there is very little chance of them recouping any monetary losses.

    Why Do Romance Frauds Work?

    • Scammers have practiced and honed their scripts (yes, professional scammers use premade templates when they communicate with victims) through trial and error in interactions with hundreds of potential victims.
    • Romance scams continuously evolve, they might follow the same basic recipe, but their script and the pictures they use change. Not long ago most pictures were stolen from smaller celebrities or stock photos. Now they steal images from real people off Facebook or Instagram, making them look much more authentic and harder to distinguish from real profiles.
    • Most dating sites are not quick enough to remove the scammers.
    • Scammers abuse the trust and reputation that respectable dating sites spend a lot of money building up. The more trustworthy a site, the better it is for a scammer to get through the filters and be allowed to operate their scams.
    • People lack an understanding of Romance Scams. They are not savvy enough to spot them.
    • Victims have already bought into the fairy tale of finding “the one” (This is after all what most dating sites are selling) so they want to believe. They are almost a willing victim.

    Solving the issue of Romance scams is a joint effort between law enforcement, dating sites and the general population.

    Education and awareness around Romance scams is one weapon in the fight against the scammers. Another important part is to have all serious dating sites commit to quickly removing fake profiles from their site ideally before they even go live.

    In our next article we will share a lot of key elements to look for when trying to decide whether a profile is fake and catfishing or whether it is a legit user looking for love.

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    Global, full-service leader in content moderation

    We provide automated and manual moderation for online marketplaces, online dating, sharing economy, gaming, communities and social media.

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