I like compliments and very likely you do too. In the influential book of the 20th century How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie names "giving honest and sincere appreciation" a time- and psychology-tested approach for someone to become a bit more benevolent and open to you. This article is not about making friends but a very personal story of how in 2020, this very need for love and acceptance is exploited to take advantage of people online.
Within just one month Maria, my aunt in her late 40s, has lost all her savings of €5,000 and was about to send a similar amount to another account. She was also planning her wedding and a new better life in a different country with a man who also turned out to be a fake gimmick online – a romance scam.
Like you and I, my aunt has been using a lot of gadgets, has been dealing with different people in her life, and has just enough education to reach the widespread fallacy of “Nah, it will not happen to me”.
It did and it was very painful.
Romantic intentions under false pretenses
Maria became the victim of dating and romance scam which could be defined as a “confidence trick involving feigning romantic intentions towards a victim, gaining their affection, and then using that goodwill to get the victim to send money to the scammer under false pretenses”.
Be it successful or not, every fraud or dishonest scheme is unpleasant. The romance frauds, however, stand out with the notorious cruelty as they are playing with your emotions for weeks, months, or even years to eventually make you part with your money or personal data to a person you trust.
When I reached out to my aunt to ask if she is comfortable talking about the details, she said that the whole story hurt her so much that her mind has blocked out most of the details because of the humiliation and self-criticism she felt.
Nevertheless, she did agree to expose the parts she remembered to highlight the need to openly talk about such things: “It happened to me because of one simple reason – I didn’t know it could happen and I am an educated person”.
Everyone is Vulnerable
Dating apps are not an exclusive place for online scammers. It could be virtually every platform that implies meeting people online. Maria’s story started with the desire to take up a new hobby.
Learning English, a new language, was about to become her escape room from a 12-hour day of a hard job, lack of social life, and a recent divorce.
All three factors made her search for language learning opportunities online.
She stopped on a popular language-learning site Conversation Exchange, which allows you to find a pen-pal – a native speaker with whom you practice the language you learn in exchange for helping with the language you speak.
She filled in a simple profile and the site’s algorithm immediately suggested to her the hundreds of linguistic matches.
Later Maria recalled, that there were a few pop-up warning windows with possible fake profiles and money laundering, which she quickly closed so she could proceed with her application.
Would you pay attention? Maybe, maybe not, but the research on digitalisation indicates that our average attention spam on the Internet is eight seconds, which to put into comparison is shorter than a goldfish.
One important message always goes with a less important one such as an ad and over time we naturally ignore all.
In just a week of Google translating and chatting with her pen-pal, Maria shared with a visible enthusiasm that “she felt an immediate romantic connection with a stranger”.
The first step of such a scheme – also known as ‘catfishing’ – is to express strong emotions and develop a trusting rapport over a short period of time.
It comes under the disguise of fun conversations, and appealing attention to your personality and life.
Often, the person suggests other means of communication to move away from the site – email or WhatsApp.
The scammers are good at what they are doing but, often, it doesn’t take more than basic listening skills to trick you into telling your intimate stories.
Maria explained: “He asked me about my life, problems, concerns, my family and was very generous with a compliment and nice words. I was surprised that he showed an obvious interest so soon but I didn’t question it more.”
Mayor Floyd was the ‘He’ and the whole made-up story created a favorable image from the start. Floyd was an attractive man, in his 50s, from Arkansas, USA.
Some years ago he experienced the huge trauma of losing his wife in a car accident and raised two sons on his own.
In his free time, he likes playing the guitar, hanging around with his friends, and learning new languages and cultures. He is also shy, introverted, and doesn’t talk about his life much.
Instead, you could dispel the doubts with his numerous pictures of friends and sons on the profile. He decided to learn Russian (my aunt’s native language) while on a mission in Afghanistan.
Maria once joked about his ‘funny’ English, as sometimes, even Google couldn’t translate the expressions.
Floyd said it was his dialect, which would be hard to discern for any beginner in English. My aunt had never had a video call because she was ashamed of her level of English.
If it wasn’t for her beginner level, the scammer would find another reason for not turning on the camera.
The dating scammers are often coming from non-English speaking countries but present themselves as native speakers from highly developed countries like Australia or the USA and workers in the aid or military industry.
They might even start sending you actual gifts to verify your name and residence. While you are unpacking your new laptop, they might ask you for a bank account to send a small Christmas present.
At this point, you might think that you would be able to catch the scammer red handed. Well, this is more complex than that.
Social Isolation And Dating Scams
At the moment, my aunt was living in isolation, a similar story to millions of people tackling loneliness, and separation during the lockdown. Loneliness is recognized as a health threat and a major challenge of our time.
Especially now during these isolated months, we tend to rely on our emotions in making important decisions, and scammers know that all too well.
Maria wanted to safeguard her romantic story by not sharing much. You know this moment when something nice has happened to you in a moment of vulnerability and you are protecting it from the harsh realms of daily life?
When she did share bits and parts with us, her family, Maria was very trusting of her feelings and like every person in love, wouldn’t listen much.
This is exactly what the scammers want you to do.
“He asked me with whom I was in touch and where I was living which I translated as his sheer interest in my personality not as phishing if I am sharing the details of our correspondence with my family. He missed his sons and I missed my daughters. That was our common ground.”
In four weeks, Floyd became more direct. Once he went on leave from his mission in Afghanistan, he promised to visit my aunt in Moscow and formally invite her to move to Arkansas to start a new life together.
Then he disappeared for four days because of some ‘crisis’ at his work. It was an unusual break from the everyday flow of loving words, which served as the accelerator in their relations.
When Defences are Down
To visit Moscow, Floyd had to get the official papers with the purpose of the visit. He asked Maria to send her passport scan to send the requests for such papers.
“He won my trust by attaching the document with stamps and watermarks, a copy of his passport, names, and details of his family. It looked impeccable to me and I didn’t hesitate to share mine in return.
“When I saw the paper which asked to send €3,000 for him to come, it started to hit home.”
In 2020, if you have the access to the Internet and persistence to learn Photoshop, you can learn to fabricate anything from money to your diploma in a few days with little difference to the ordinary eye.
Producing or using counterfeit documents is a criminal offence, but it does happen a lot. You should always be aware that someone sharing personal data shouldn’t earn your trust online.
My aunt didn’t lose her money this way. She reported Floyd to that language exchange site that blocked his fake account.
Maria took precautions – warned the bank and her family that she shared her passport scan with a criminal, and was on alert. But it wasn’t enough.
False Billing Scam
In a few weeks she received a call from her bank informing her that they just blocked her account because of the alleged fake transaction from abroad. The bank was ensuring that saving my aunt’s money was their top priority.
“They were very professional, well-versed, calm, warned me about money laundering cases.
“They suggested sending saving to a new account with some security codes. That’s how I, myself, gave the money to the hands of criminals. The two months of their work eventually paid off with €5,000.”
My aunt became the victim of identity theft and false billing. The scammers used her passport details, email, and personal information gained from the month of correspondence and presented themselves as trustworthy personnel from the bank. Because she authorised the transaction, there was no way back.
Fake phone calls are very common for every type of scam and, ironically, the existing panic over money laundering plays at scammers’ hands – you are aware that someone can try to hack your account, thus, a ‘bank’ trying to protect it would seem an adequate step.
It is also harder to ignore the phone call or an email from government official during the Covid-19 unemployment surge. In any situation, no institution be it a bank or hospital has the authority for requesting your data, or card number over the phone.
It is also advised not to share intimate photos with anyone; these could later be used by hackers or scammers as compromising material for blackmailing.
You can read more from this Youth Time article on Cyber Extortion, a form of cyberbullying where someone threatens to share intimate images of you online unless you do what is requested.
The rise of scams or the rise of vulnerability to them?
Dating and romance scams are the second most widespread scams online, only behind the Investments category. As for December 2020 counts for $34 342 393 of losses in Australia only.
Interestingly, there is neither significant difference in the age category of affected people nor single gender dominance. Thus, we should shift from our exclusive focus of millennials and acknowledge that everyone using social media channels is vulnerable to online scams.
Even before Covid-19, dating sites became a popular tool to find a friend or a partner among adults of all ages. The latest survey from the Pew Research Centre conducted in October 2019 revealed that three-in-10 Americans have turned to dating apps to find companionship.
Since April 2020, Tinder reported a 20% increase in conversations and 25% in their length. Covid-19 has attracted more users as well as more scammers to take advantage of lonely hearts.
But it’s not only the higher Internet usage but the intertwine of emotional factors of loneliness and isolation with an online aspect of our lives that have made us more vulnerable to dating frauds.
Looking For Love
Dating sites are booming because people are craving human connection. My aunt shared that this romantic fraud was a personification of her suppressed cry for love and understanding. It could have ended up much worse than just losing money.
She says: “I had such a crisis of loneliness that I forgot about myself. When I forgot about myself, I let this person fill the void inside.
This guy, the scammer, was telling me that everything was fine and I was ready to follow this line to the end”.
Maria’s story has taught her a lot. One of her major lessons is to take care of yourself regardless any circumstances.
And it also taught us, her family, not to give any discounts for the age, or occupation when it comes to online crimes. Everyone using the Internet is vulnerable.
As the ongoing pandemic shows no signs of recession, the topic of cyber security is more relevant than ever.
Most of our aspect of life, romantic or professional, have entered the online world. We should adapt accordingly, by taking time and effort to educate ourselves about the types of possible scams and how to react if we face one.
Here are a few sources that I found extremely useful and easy to navigate. Scamwatch provides information on types of scams and their warning signs. The Scam Detector is the largest fraud prevention resource in the world and tracks down information for more than 525 worldwide scams.
Photos: Shutterstock / Photomontage: Martina Advaney
Read about internet scams.
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