At the turn of the millennium, people who met on dating sites were viewed with a certain degree of suspicion, often considered social misfits unable to meet a partner in more traditional ways. These days, the stigma has all but disappeared, with would-be daters of all ages taking to romance sites and apps with little concern about how they might be perceived by others. In fact, a recent UK survey found that half of all new British couples will meet online by 2031.
The rise in popularity of these types of services has led to a massive growth in online dating fraud, which often involves organised criminal gangs targeting mostly vulnerable middle-aged women who have access to large sums of money.
British Police this week revealed that an incident of dating fraud is now being reported to UK law enforcement authorities once every three hours, with each victim losing an average of €11,690. In 2015, Europol cyber crime adviser Professor Alan Woodward told Newsweek that dating fraud was becoming a growing problem in Germany and France too.
The gangs behind dating fraud scams are often based in Russia, Eastern Europe or West Africa, making it more difficult for police in the countries they target to track them down and bring them to justice. In a bid to attract the type of wealthy divorcees who typically prove most profitable for them, dating fraud gangs create fake profiles on popular websites using stolen photographs of attractive middle-aged men, who are said to have good jobs and comfortable lifestyles.
Once contact has been made, the fraudsters will attempt to build trust with a victim by exchanging messages for weeks or even months. They will often look to make contact outside of a dating sites’ messaging systems, asking victims for their personal email address or social media details. Once rapport has been established, the fraudsters will create some form of financial emergency and ask to borrow money from their victim.
In some cases, scammers will pretend the suitor they created is having cash flow problems, and that the money they need to borrow will be paid back in no time. In others, fraudsters will plead poverty on behalf of their fake profile character, asking for money for rent, living expenses or medical bills. Once a victim makes one payment, the fraudsters will typically come back for more, creating new excuses for additional money to be sent.
One UK women lost more than €350,773 after signing up to a dating site in the aftermath of the breakup of her marriage. Speaking with the BBC last month, the woman, who wished to remain anonymous, said that while she felt uncomfortable sending multiple large transfers to a man she met online, she did not want to admit she was being conned. She is now facing bankruptcy.
In January 2016, two Nigerian fraudsters were jailed for a total of five-and-a-half years for conning €1.87 million out of a British woman after they set up a fake profile on Match.com. Ife Ojo and Olusegun Agbaje pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud their victim while pretending to be a man named Christian Anderson on the site. The woman was convinced to send Anderson money so as he could eventually come and live in the UK.
The previous year, police in Italy arrested 10 members of an organised crime gang accused of making millions of euros from online romance scams and other forms of internet-facilitated fraud. Europol and the FBI supported officers from the Guardia di Finanza as they targeted the gang, which is thought to have used fake dating site profiles to snare women across Europe. Most of those arrested were of Nigerian origin.
Scamalytics, a firm that provides anti-scammer software to multiple dating sites, has outlined a number of ways users can spot a fake profile. The company suggests dating site users run a reverse image search on pictures featured on suspicious profiles. It’s also a good idea to make sure a profile picture matches its description, and to take a look at how choosy the person behind a profile appears. If somebody is interested in meeting people of all shapes and sizes from pretty much anywhere in the world, it might be a sign something isn’t right.
As well as offering advice on how to avoid falling victim to dating scammers, Scamalytics has also established the attributes of the typical fake profile. After sifting through millions of bogus daters each year, the firm found the average fake male is in his late 40s, has a high income, an average body type, is educated to degree level and is employed in a professional role, such as engineering. The typical fake female is in her late 20s, has a high income, is also educated to degree level, and is most often still in education.
Scammers who don’t have the time to come up with new online profiles can even buy readymade ones complete with stock responses from dark web marketplaces. For no more than a few dollars, dating scammers can buy a plug-and-play product that guarantees a minimum level of return. Dating site users should use a search engine to check any phrases or passages that don’t appear natural.
Discussing these packs with the BBC this week, Professor Woodward said dating scammers have also come up with a secondary fraud that involves fake police contacting victims offering to investigate their losses for a fee. “Needless to say it is throwing good money after bad,” Woodward told the broadcaster.