The world has quickly embraced online dating services. Many have become hooked on dating apps or virtual places to meet people, hoping they could meet their significant other there. In Latin America and the Asia Pacific region, for instance, apps and dating sites are accepted at about 45%. In the US and Europe, on the other hand, that numbr is at around 28%. These services allow them to socialize with whoever they want.
While these apps and sites have the potential to bring great happiness to the lives of their customers, there is a dark side: scammers abuse these services to their own nefarious ends, leading to heartbreak both emotionally and financially for their victims.
Online Romance Scams: Facts
Our society has easily accepted the rise of dating services, thus, it’s not surprising that nearly everyone we meet has one or two dating apps on their phones. Some are lucky to meet their partners on these platforms. Reports show that 23% of Internet users in the UK have met someone online with whom they had a romantic relationship for a certain period and that even 6% of married couples met through the web. Unfortunately, the online dating industry has given rise to new forms of pathologies and crime.
According to Phys.org, an internet news portal that provides the latest news on science, online romance scams are a modern form of fraud that has spread across the world. 63% of social media users and 3% of the general population report having been a victim at least once. People who are at higher risk of being victims of the scam include women, middle-aged people, and individuals with higher tendencies to anxiety, romantic idealization of affective relations, impulsiveness, and susceptibility to relational addiction.
A recent survey conducted by UK Finance, a trade association for the UK banking and financial services sector, revealed that 27% of people who use online dating services admitted they were ‘catfished’ in the last 12 months, a scam where someone using online dating services adopts a fake persona or picture. About 21% who use online dating services said that they have either been asked for money or have given money to someone that they met online. Authorities have reminded dating app users to be careful in trusting people they meet online because they are more vulnerable than they think.
The survey reported that romance scams usually involve persuading victims to make a payment to them after meeting, often online through dating sites, and convincing them they are in a relationship. “Romance scams are both emotionally and financially damaging for victims. The popularity of online dating services has made it easier for criminals to target victims,” Katy Worobec, Managing Director of Economic Crime at UK Finance, said. Worobec added that “customers must be on their guard and protect themselves too. Always be wary of requests for money from someone you’ve never met in person.”
Huge amounts of money are lost every year because of these scams. In 2018, Australia reported nearly 4,000 cases of scams related to online dating through social networks, and dating apps or websites, which represented losses of more than AU$24 million. In 2019, many people across the world lost $201 million to romance scams. They reported losing more money to romance scams in the past two years than to any other fraud reported to the Federal Trade Commission.
How Scammers Pull Off Their Scams
In the US, the most common type of consumer fraud in being scammed by a romantic interest online. "These victims are invested in that relationship and they're emotional when that person does ask for money. Usually, they're told that something sudden happened where [the offender] needs money now and that [victim] doesn't have time to reason or ask friends,” Kevin Luebke, a supervisory special agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), said.
But, how do people fall into these traps? A recent study published in the journal Clinical Practice & Epidemiology in Mental Health revealed that the scammer first develops a romantic relationship with the victim for six to eight months. They want to build a deep emotional bond to extort economic resources in a manipulative dynamic. Usually, scammers act empathetically and attempt to create the impression in the victim that the two are perfectly synced in their shared view of life.
"There are two notable features: on the one hand, the double trauma of losing money and a relationship, on the other, the victim's shame upon discovery of the scam, an aspect that might lead to underestimation of the number of cases," the authors said.
Suli Malet-Warden, an identity security counselor at national identity and cyber support service IDCARE, said that scammers tend to use the complex language of love to connect with their victims in the early stages of a process that regularly hooked smart, educated people. The language is really important. When we speak to victims, they say they've been connected, prolifically in the initial stages, using extremely validating language and we are all suckers for it," she said.
According to ABC Net, Australia's national broadcaster, an IDCARE study of 583 relationship scam cases reported from 2014 to 2108 across Australia and New Zealand revealed scammers used "specific and highly validating narrative to gently groom the victim into a loved-up state so powerful, they agree to part with money.”
After the scammers make sure that the victims have fallen in love with them, they start talking about the possibility of actually meeting up. However, this meetup would be postponed several times due to urgent problems or desperate situations such as accidents, deaths, surgeries, or sudden hospitalizations. Victims usually fall for these reasons, thus, they are even more manipulated into sending money to cover the momentary emergency.
"The declarations of the scammer become increasingly affectionate and according to some authors, a declaration of love is made within two weeks from initial contact," the study elaborated.
The victim gradually doubts the person when all their meetups fail. Not only will they doubt their meetups but also the authenticity and intentions of that person. But, in this case, they have already spent so much on them. The researchers said that the emotional reaction of the victim once the scam is discovered may go through various phases: feelings of shock, anger or shame, the perception of having been emotionally violated (a kind of emotional rape), loss of trust in people, a sensation of disgust towards oneself or the perpetrator of the crime and a feeling of mourning.
"Understanding the psychological characteristics of victims and scammers will allow at-risk personality profiles to be identified and prevention strategies to be developed," the authors suggested.