Cybercriminals Use Online Dating Sites To Conduct Confidence/Romance Scams And Recruit Money Mules
Review: What Is Confidence/Romance Fraud? (Also Know As A Romance Scam)
Confidence/romance fraud (Romance Scams) occurs when a scammer deceives a victim into believing they have a trust relationship—whether family, friendly, or romantic—and leverages the relationship to persuade the victim to send money, provide personal and financial information, or purchase items of value for the scammer. In some cases, the victim is persuaded to launder money on behalf of the scammer.
Scammers often use online dating sites to pose as U.S. citizens located in a foreign country, U.S. military members deployed overseas, or U.S. business owners seeking assistance with lucrative investments.
The Scam Threat
In 2017, more than 15,000 people filed complaints with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) alleging they were victims of confidence/romance fraud and reporting losses of more than $211 million. In 2018, the number of victims filing these complaints increased to more than 18,000, with more than $362 million in losses—an increase of more than 70 percent over the previous year. Of course, these reports are a small fraction of the real numbers, since more than 90% of victims never report the crime out of shame.
In 2018, confidence/romance fraud was the seventh most commonly reported scam to the IC3 based on the number of complaints received, and the second-costliest scam in terms of victim loss. Again the FBI’s can only report what is reported to them.
IC3 receives victim reports from all ages, education, and income brackets. However, the elderly, women, and those who have lost a spouse are often the most targeted and are easily found on social media.
The Scammer’s Methods
After establishing their victims’ trust, scammers try to convince them to send money for airfare to visit, or claim they are in trouble and need money. Victims often send money because they believe they are in a romantic relationship.
For example, a scammer claims to be a U.S. citizen living abroad. After a few months of building a relationship with the victim, the scammer asks the victim to send gifts or electronics to a foreign address. After a few more months, the scammer expresses a desire to return to the U.S. to meet the victim. The scammer claims not to have the money to pay for travel and asks the victim to wire funds. In some cases, the scammer claims the wired funds did not arrive and asks the victim to resend the money.
Some fraudsters provide a fake travel itinerary. When they don’t arrive as scheduled, they claim they were arrested, and ask for more money to post bail. They may also request more money for travel or to recover assets seized during their “arrest.”
Requests for money may continue until the victim is unable—or unwilling—to provide more.
Send In The Mules
In some situations the victim may be unknowingly recruited as a “money mule;” someone who transfers money illegally on behalf of others.
Scammers groom their victims (massively manipulates them) over time and convince them to open bank accounts under the guise of sending or receiving funds.
Grooming is defined as preparing a victim to conduct fraudulent activity on their behalf through communications intended to develop a trust relationship (manipulation).
These accounts are used to facilitate criminal activities for a short period of time. If the account is flagged by the financial institution, it may be closed and the scammer will either direct the victim to open a new account or begin grooming a new victim.
Romance Scamming Trends
In other situations, the scammer claims to be a European citizen or an American living abroad. After a few months of developing trust, the scammer will tell the victim about a lucrative business opportunity. The scammer will inform the victim there are investors willing to fund the project, but they need a U.S. bank account to receive funds. The victim is asked to open a bank account or register a limited liability company in the victim’s name and then to receive and send money from that account to other accounts controlled by the scammer.
The downside of this is that it is a crime, plus the “mule” may also have to pay taxes on every dollar received and passed through.
Tips To Protect Yourself
Most cybercriminals do not use their own photographs; they use an image stolen from another social media account as their own.
A reverse image search (images.googe.com or http://www.tineye.com) can determine if a stolen profile picture is being used elsewhere on the internet, and on which websites or social media platforms it was used. A search sometimes provides information that links the image with other scams or victims.
To Perform A Reverse Image Search On Profile Photos:
- Right-click on the image and select “Search for an image.” (if available, if not, save the photo then go to the Google or Tineye website and upload it to search)
- Or Right-click again and select “Save image as” to save the photo to your device.
- Using a search engine, choose the small camera icon to upload the saved image into the search engine.
Always Use Your Best Judgment.
While most dating sites routinely monitor account activity and investigate all complaints of falsified accounts, most dating site administrators do not conduct criminal background checks when an account is registered.
Social Media is much worse. Even when reported their moderators frequently do not remove a fake profile.
Keep in mind it is always possible for people to misrepresent themselves. Do not ignore any facts which seem inconsistent.
Common Scammer Techniques
Be aware of the following common techniques used by romance scammers:
- Immediate requests to talk or chat on an email or messaging service outside of the dating site.
- Claims that your introduction was “destiny” or “fate,” especially early in communication.
- Claims to be from the U.S. but is currently living, working, or traveling abroad.
- Asks for money, goods, or any similar type of financial assistance, especially if you have never met in person.
- Asks for assistance with personal transactions (opening new bank accounts, depositing or transferring funds, shipping merchandise, etc.).
- Reports a sudden personal crisis and pressures you to provide financial assistance. Be especially wary if the demands become increasingly aggressive.
- Tells inconsistent or grandiose stories.
- Gives vague answers to specific questions.
- Claims to be recently widowed or claim to be a U.S. service member serving overseas.
- Disappears suddenly from the site then reappears under a different name using the same profile information.
The FBI & SCARS Advises:
- Never send money to someone you meet online, especially by wire transfer.
- Never provide credit card numbers or bank account information without verifying the recipient’s identity.
- Never share your Social Security number or other personally identifiable information that can be used to access your accounts with someone who does not need to know this information.
What To Do If You Are A Victim
If you are a victim of a confidence/romance scam, it is recommended that you take the following actions:
- If you lost money, report the crime to your local police and obtain a police report number
- Report the scam to the Money Transfer Agency or your Bank – contact your financial institution immediately upon discovering any fraudulent or suspicious activity and direct them to stop or reverse the transactions. You may also need to change your account information. Ask your financial institution to contact the corresponding financial institution where the fraudulent or suspicious transfer was sent.
- Report the activity to the Internet Crime Complaint Center www.IC3.gov
- If a sizeable amount of money or if money was sent inside the U.S. we suggest also visiting your local FBI field office. Local FBI field offices can be found online at www.fbi.gov/contact-us/field. There are also FBI offices in most foreign U.S. Embassies.
- Report the activity to the website where the contact was first initiated.
- Also, report it on www.Anyscam.com for distribution worldwide to the SCARS Network of agencies and entities.