Romance scams continue to evolve, not in a small part due to social media and the popularity of online dating. With our lives becoming increasingly busy, not to mention the COVID-19 pandemic and stay-at-home orders, apps dedicated to online romance — or casual dating — have flourished.
Tinder, Grindr, Plenty of Fish, Bumble, Match, and Hinge are some of the most popular apps out there, and each can be an avenue for scammers to strike.
Romance scams vary, but they all have one of two purposes: stealing your cash or your information. Scams include:
Outright requests for money: Scammers might start small and even pay you back to build trust. However, it wouldn’t be long before they would ask for far more — and then vanish.
Requests might be made to purchase a flight or travel to see you, pay off customs charges, buy a new laptop or phone to keep communicating with you, pay outstanding medical bills, among other things.
Your scammer may also say they are expecting a cash gift or an inheritance, so they ask to ‘borrow’ money for a short while.
An emergency or disaster: For some, being a romance scammer is a full-time job, so spending time building trust with multiple victims is simply part of their working day.
Suppose enough of an emotional connection is cruelly created, and then they say there is a sudden emergency. There’s been an accident, they are in trouble and their physical safety is threatened, or they are in hospital with looming medical bills.
This can create enough of a panic that the victim sends cash without a second thought, as the fraudster has already taken the time to build up trust.
Members of the military: The military scam is a popular one. A profile is set up with fake images — often the stolen photos of actual soldiers — and the use military jargon, titles, and known army deployment areas to appear more plausible.
They may say they are either just about to ship out or are soon to return and may also try to add some mystery by refusing to give details in the name of confidentiality.
A personal example of a military scam:
I spoke to someone on Tinder in 2019 who said he was part of the US military. At the time, I’d had my fill of catfish and scammers, so I decided to have some fun and see how long I could drag it out.
My romance scammer, set with all-American-boy photos, was apparently based in Afghanistan on deployment but would be “coming home soon” to the UK.
After shifting to a secondary, throwaway WhatsApp number, he said he would ask his “commanding officer” for permission to video chat. Playing along with it, I was sent a video of a soldier saying hello.
I’d asked him to say my name in it to prove that it was real-time footage. This, of course, didn’t happen.
The footage was the type of generic clip you’d find on TikTok, but if you weren’t on the lookout for red flags, it could have been believable and considered genuine.
It wasn’t long before he said he was running out of phone credit but he really wanted to keep talking to me. So he asked to “borrow” £20 to top up his phone.
How about… no.
That wouldn’t have been the end of it. In my opinion, this request was akin to a test payment you’d see when your card details have been stolen on your bank statement — in which criminals make small requests, no more than a few dollars, to see if a bank account is active and has funds.
When it comes to romance scams, a small amount can very quickly turn into an avalanche that could financially bury a victim.
Military scams have become so common that the US Army itself has provided an online fact sheet on these schemes.
“The most common scheme involves criminals, often from other countries — most notably from West African countries — pretending to be US soldiers serving in a combat zone or other overseas location,” the organization says. “These crooks often present documents and other ‘proof’ of their financial need when asking their victims to wire money to them.”
Investments: Last year, Interpol warned that fraudsters are encouraging their matches to join them in financial “ventures.”
The cybercriminal begins by building trust and offering tips and advice on stocks, shares, and investments. They will then try to lure their victim into signing up for a fake financial product, normally hosted through a malicious investment app or fraudulent website.
An incentive is essential to this scam being a success. For example, your new love interest may offer you VIP status and personal instruction in the world of investing.
A victim could then submit their payment card details, which can then be stolen and used by the cybercriminals to make fraudulent purchases. Or they could load cash onto a fake platform — only to be locked out of the account.
The fraudster blocks them and disappears.
“They’re left confused, hurt, and worried that they’ll never see their money again,” Interpol noted. Most of the time, victims won’t.
Cryptocurrency: Cryptocurrency-related scams are a new twist on older investment scams. Scam artists take advantage of a general lack of understanding surrounding cryptocurrency to hoodwink their victims. This may include signing them up for fake cryptocurrency trading apps.
Sophos researchers published an advisory on CryptoRom in 2021, a cybercriminal ring that targeted Tinder and Bumble users. Victims lost thousands of dollars after falling prey to these romance scams, and fake cryptocurrency trading apps were promoted not only on these dating apps, but also on social media networks and cold-call WhatsApp solicitations.
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