A Georgia State University research study reveals insights into the phenomenon known as “romance fraud,” in which the scammer swindles money out of a target. Romance fraud is often underreported and understudied, but this third-ranked cybercrime has resulted in losses close to $956 million according to the Federal Bureau of Investigations 2021 Internet Crime Report. Romance fraud often results in significant extreme psychological trauma in addition to severe financial loss. The researchers identified risk and protective factors in order to develop a model for individuals to protect themselves, and they published the findings in the American Journal of Criminal Justice.
The researchers analyzed about 10,000 vetted online testimonials found on websites where victims share stories and warn others. Sites included stop-scammers.com and male-scammers.com. Data analysis software allowed the researchers to create a romance fraud victim database using testimonials as a basis. They then analyzed the victims’ stories to identify overarching themes. Scammers approached victims on social networks such as Twitter and Facebook or on dating sites (Tinder, Ashley Madison, and OkCupid). The researchers identified the most common and successful techniques used by scammers: using visceral, emotional triggers or influences, manufacturing a crisis, and exploiting likability and similarity. They might also prey on the victim’s sense of guilt. Another common tactic used by scammers is to quickly ask their victims to use a private email or messaging format (like WhatsApp or Google Hangout) in order to isolate them.
Some fraud victims report red flags to watch: an online suitor might evade questions, avoid phone conversations, or refuse to send recent photographs. The major warning is asking for money. The study also identified common risk factors for potential victims. Those at greater risk are less tech-savvy older populations, and younger people less experienced with initiating online relationships are also more vulnerable to electronic exploitation.
Since fraudsters tend to use very similar linguistic cues to deceive victims, online service providers could develop algorithm-based predictive tools to detect fraudulent attempts against potential victims. These tools can be integrated into dating and social media sites, and these online platforms can use the findings to develop educational or awareness programs to protect future potential victims.
Sources: American Journal of Criminal Justice, Eureka News Alert, GSU News, Federal Bureau of Investigations 2021 Internet Crime Report