When I think of Internet dating, an old song comes to mind — “Lookin for love in all the wrong places.”
Imagine the Internet was a physical location. 90% of the wall space of this building is covered in pornography and ads for all sorts of illegal drugs and get rich quick schemes. The people you meet inside are all wearing masks, hiding their true identity. Most of them have nothing evil in mind — but a handful are malicious, scammers and shammers, hackers and identity thieves. Does this sound like an ideal place to meet a lover?
Internet dating scams are as old as the Internet itself. Most people are familiar with Internet confidence scams that start out: “I am a Nigerian prince . . .” and though most people recognize these “419 fraud” emails for what they are — identity thieves trying to get access to your bank account. Why then are so many people willing to “fall in love” on the web and fall for the same line of baloney?
Latest Trend in Internet Dating Scams
The new trend in web thievery is covering itself up as an opportunity for true love. Since it is now fairly common (and fairly acceptable) for people to fall in love with people they meet online, people are more vulnerable to confidence scams involving Internet dating. There’s a large number of people in the UK right now who are the targets of Internet dating scammers using dating sites to gain confidence and access to PIN numbers. Single people who don’t know they’re “looking for love in all the wrong places” are being duped on online dating sites by fraudsters from all over Europe and West Africa.
How does it work? If you’re familiar with the “Nigerian 419” scams, the pattern will be quite familiar. People in countries that don’t prosecute these sorts of crimes create fake online profiles featuring pictures of attractive men or women and start trolling hundreds of thousands of online dating profiles, sending out identical emails and letters to people in hopes that just one sucker will respond. There’s nothing particularly “new” about this scam except that it uses the web instead of good old fashioned snail mail — and the fact that more people are falling for it because of the inherent confidence created by online personalities.
How big is the current problem? In the summer of 2010, the British Serious Organized Crime Agency (SOCA) has sent trained investigators from the Anti-Kidnap and Extortion Unit to several West African nations in order to assist in the training of police officials in anti-confidence scam tactics. Meanwhile, SOCA is sending out thousands of warning to online dating sites and “lonely hearts club” bulletin boards asking them to warn their customers about the dangers of Internet dating scams.
While on duty in West Africa, these SOCA officers have intercepted literally tens of thousands of these fraud letters coming from Africa and headed toward people both in the UK and in America. They’ve also collected hundreds of return letters from victims in the West that contain cold hard cash. Why do people readily stuff envelopes with their hard earned money? These fraudsters are good at building confidence. It is the heart and soul of their business — they create a hot and heavy connection between themselves and the victim. Such is the connection between an Internet dating scammer and the fraud victim that SOCA has found that many people who have been defrauded of money simply refuse to believe it, and will not cooperate with law enforcement.
Online Dating Fraud
The first step has already been covered — online dating fraudsters will build a dating profile featuring a photo of a good looking person, not over the top gorgeous but believably attractive. After filling in the proper information aimed at tugging on the heart strings of their victims, they spam as many members of dating sites as they can. Think of it like fishing — put the bait in the right spot and wait for a single bite.
When a potential fraud victim first responds to these letters, the fraudster himself will quickly establish a love bond. The first hallmark of an Internet dating scam is an intensely passionate week of in which the fraudster “falls in love” in record time. The first appeal for money is small and seems to come up organically in the conversation. A fraudster may mention that their cell phone is going to be cut off because their bank account is frozen or for some other ridiculous reason — the idea behind that this all important love connection will end if they don’t get forty bucks. The person being scammed may think of that small amount of cash as chump change and readily send it to the fraudster, thinking they’re doing a good deed. As with “Nigerian 419” scams, the begging for money (and the amount of money) increases.
Typical reasons for the need of a larger amount of money include an operation is needed for a sick relative, or the repossession of their new love’s home. SOCA reports that many UK victims have remortgaged their own homes in order to send money to their new lover, some people completely emptying their bank accounts in the pursuit of love..
High profile cases of Internet dating scams are making the news. In early 2010, a British woman was held hostage for four days in Nigeria after meeting up with her “lover” that she met online. Major news networks picked up the story and reported that the fraudster was actually part of a Nigerian gang, and upon arriving in West Africa, the woman was quickly taken away by car.Only when her family paid a ransom was the woman released. This case was only notable because it was the first instance of a Westerner being kidnapped for the purpose of extortion via Internet dating scam.
How to Keep Yourself Safe from Internet Dating Scams
Identity theft is regularly listed as one of the greatest fears for people on the web. In a recent survey conducted by the University of London, more users reported fear of identity theft than any other factor. The Internet is a virtual supermarket of identity, allowing fraudsters and identity thieves to pick and choose their targets. Since we now keep most of our personal information online, from bank records to simple facts like phone numbers and addresses, incidents of identity theft are steadily on the rise. Some scammers simply want to use your identity to apply for passports or travel from one country to another while the really nasty fraudsters want to open bank accounts and loans with your ID.
Britain’s major fraud prevention service, called Cifas, reported recently that identity fraud has increased by 20 percent in the first quarter of 2010 compared with the year before. 41 “document factories” in various West African countries have been raided by Interpol and other international authorities, proving that confidence scams coming from African nations is a major source of income for many scammers in that part of the world. Romance fraud is big business for some people — the use of false identities in Africa is referred to as “commonplace” in the CIA’s recent reports on the continent. Interpol reports that wherever they find organized crime, terrorist networks, and immigration fraud, they also find fake IDs and other documents created using identity theft.
While not all of these scammers used romance fraud to earn their keep, protecting yourself from Internet dating scams is an easy way to protect yourself from identity theft. How can you protect yourself from becoming romantically involved with a romance scammer?
Knowing the process of an Internet based dating scam is the first step. Recognizing when you’re being duped and simply ending the relationship is the best way to stay safe with online dating. But if you’ve already been scammed or duped out of cash and you suspect romance fraud, authorities advise not to panic. Remember that the burden of proof is on your bank or other financial institution to show that you have been lax with sharing your personal details. In other words, you don’t have to somehow “prove” that you’ve kept your records safe in order to recover funds from identity theft. It may take some time, but you will most likely get your money back, especially if you report the scam to the proper authorities.
The hassle factor with recovering from identity theft is especially high. Some banks will return part of or all of your money back during their investigation, only recovering their own funds if you are somehow found negligent. Another possibility for staying safe with online dating is to take out something called “identity theft insurance”. These types of insurance policies cover your expenses in the case of identity theft. You can expect to spend anywhere from about $50 to well over $150 per year for identity theft insurance depending on how much protection you want. A small cost to keep your identity clean while you look for dating opportunities online. If you live in the West, you don’t really need this type of insurance, as most consumers are well protected by legislation in the area of identity theft.
Protect Your Online Identity with Credit Reports
It may not sound romantic, but another way to keep your online dating activities safe is to check your credit report if you start to get hot and heavy with an online lover. Credit reports are relatively inexpensive, and If someone (like your new online lover) has applied for credit in your name, you’ll be able to read this information it in the section marked “Credit account information”. Your anti romance fraud credit report will show any searches on your identity that have been carried out by financial institutions or other companies. If you didn’t authorize those inquiries, and if you’ve somehow given up access to your personal details to a recent web based love conquest, you may be looking at an instance of romance fraud.
Wire fraud is an old fashioned crime that is only in the news again because of the relationship between the Internet and existing laws on fraud that takes place over phone lines. Reading about “wire fraud” convictions makes you want to look for the nearest Speakeasy — but take this stuff seriously. Internet based scams exist outside the world of online dating — people who trade in wines and fine art have found themselves victim of similar (if not far more sophisticated) scam tactics. All of these web based scams fall under the same umbrella of legislation, so whether the crime is a simple Internet dating scam for a few thousands bucks or a major distributor of wine losing billions of dollars on phony grapes, prosecution under American and UK law will fall under the same category.
A successful con artist will do anything and everything to gain your trust — that’s why these types of scams are called “confidence fraud”. Scammers are talented manipulators, using your emotions against you to get at your cash. You don’t need me to tell you that people you meet online may not be who they say they are — spend any time online and you’ll realize that people love to hide behind an Internet facade. Not every instance of romance fraud involves cash, either. Some people are lonely and want a connection, even if that means lying about their name, age, physical appearance, even gender or geographic location. Protecting your online identity is sometimes more a matter of protecting your heart.
Experts say that the main targets of romance fraud are people with “love addiction”. The idea of falling in love is so appealing to these people that their judgement is cloudy when they get involved with someone new, and the fear of losing love leads them to give in to whatever demands are made on them. When finances start equating love, it is time to suspect romance fraud.
If you or someone you love fits the bill of a “love addict”, it may be best to steer away from online dating. You’d hate to fall prey to an illusion of love that quickly turns to a financial scam.