Avoiding risky romance in our online world
In today’s world of online dating, we have to trust that the person we’re talking to online is who they say they are. With the rise of dating websites and apps, we find ourselves fighting through a sea of webcam spammers and bots using various guises.
According to the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau, a total of 3,889 victims were defrauded out of £39 million from online dating fraud in 2016. It’s big business. And dating fraud can come in different forms.
Sextortion is the newest of the online dating fraud scams using webcams. An evolution of blackmail through obtaining intimate photos, these fake profiles tempt the user into webcam sessions and records them. The user thinks they are talking to a real person, but this is a pre-recorded video being controlled by the fraudster. These scams use most social media platforms, not just dating ones. Blackmail follows with threats of posting these intimate images online if money is not transferred.
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The most common frauds are the ‘419’ scams. Started in Africa, they now operate worldwide and these scams also aim to get your money. These scammers are or have experts in psychological manipulation at their disposal.
Smaller scams involving individuals are surfacing in the UK. The CPS recently convicted a 29-year-old from Portsmouth, posing as a woman to con men out of money, claiming ‘she’ needed help with mortgage payments.
My experience and that of thousands of others didn’t involve money at all. It seems these catfish are lesser known but cause just as much emotional damage. Their motives come in many forms but mainly it’s from a sexual perspective. It’s unlikely they will ever meet their target but we seem to have a new breed of catfish, like mine, who are coming offline to pursue the relationships they create in the flesh.
How to protect yourself
Knowledge is power. Being aware that these scams (and individuals) exist is the most important thing. It will put you on guard when you come across anything that is mirroring these types of situations. There are however, common tactics used by most catfish. You can help get through the minefield by checking out a few red flags.
• Photos that look familiar, staged or too perfect probably are. They’re likely actors or catalogue shots. Run them through a search engine like Tineye or Google reverse image search. If it comes back showing the photo on lots of other websites, it has been used elsewhere and isn’t a personal image. ID verification tools such as Yoti now exist to check people are who they say they are, but until this type of verification becomes the norm there are still accounts that will slip through the net.
• If the other person asks to move the conversation away from the platform early on, this could be a warning sign. Dating platforms have software to detect current trends in conversation of bots and scammers, so fraudsters will try to get you to chat elsewhere to avoid detection.
• The profiles of catfish (or messages sent on social media) tend to be very full, including information of their hopes of the relationship they seek from start to finish. If they repeatedly say how loyal, genuine and trustworthy they are, or that they’re looking for a soulmate and someone to marry, this should alert you. Genuine profiles should be more lighthearted and may include just a few words about the type of person they’re looking for. Too much information is just too much.
• If you do start chatting, they may start ‘love bombing’. This is the technique used to attract and hook the target. It has been taken from the well documented and longstanding manipulation tactics used by real emotional abusers. When vulnerable, it works. Things will seem to move very quickly and targets are bombarded with attention and affection. They will focus on you and share very little about themselves.
• Asking for money will soon follow if they are a scammer. They may be subtle or outright. But anyone asking for money that you haven’t met in person is not someone to be chatting with. They play on kind people, and anyone who is genuinely looking for love and companionship will not start asking you for any amount of money.
• Similarly, anyone asking for intimate photos, videos or webcams before you meet would be considered disrespectful of someone really interested in a proper relationship. It may start with them asking for ‘sexy chat’ but could progress quickly into them asking for more.