Online Love Scams: What’s new, how to spot fake profiles, and other red flags to look for
"My love don't cost a thing"
Your phone pings and a message notification pops up on the screen: “Hello, beautiful”. The sender turns out to be a handsome stranger, one who’s eager to get to know you and whose vocabulary is as sweet as brown sugar bubble tea. It could be the start of a romance straight out of the movies—or end not just with tears and a broken heart, but with an empty bank account too.
With dating apps now a regular sight on mobile screens, finding love online is no longer taboo. In fact, while online romance scams are nothing new, they’re constantly evolving in order to hook new victims who are “scouted” either through dating apps or social media platforms.
Figures released by the Royal Malaysia Police show that in 2020, 1,582 love scam cases were reported, amounting to a loss of RM58.33 million. In 2021, 549 cases were reported in just the first four months, with losses totalling RM20.58 million. As isolation and loneliness increased during the pandemic, so did the brazenness of love scammers who have gotten more convincing with the fake identities, sob stories and empty promises.
More sophisticated, higher stakes
The non-profit Global Anti-Scam Organisation (Gaso) is an advocacy group formed by victims of pig-butchering scams—a hybrid of romance and investment scams. In their experience, members of organised crime syndicates are able to pass off as genuine romantic prospects by purchasing images and videos from real people, whom they then imitate, for as little as US$4.
Their modus operandi is to establish an emotional connection with victims before convincing them to sink large sums into fraudulent investments. Well-educated men and women have taken the bait due to how professional the entire set-up is, from creating fake investment sites and apps, to posing as customer service personnel.
In February this year, a Malaysian nurse working in Singapore made the news when she was forced to declare bankruptcy after being cheated out of S$270,000 by romance scammers pretending to be a Shanghainese interior designer based in Canada.
How to protect yourself
From her prior position within the Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre (AUSTRAC), Genevieve Noakes has the inside scoop on how to avoid getting scammed. Now the Head of Compliance for the APAC region at Wise, Noakes has important guidelines to help singles sniff out a con before falling under love’s spell:
Q: Which questions from a new love interest could be red flags?
Genevieve Noakes (G): If you ask a new love interest questions and they don’t give you straight answers or question Your curiosity, that could be a red flag. Ask specific questions about details given in a profile. A scammer may stumble over remembering details or making a story fit. If the person you’re talking to hesitates to use your name and instead frequently uses pet names, that can be an indication that the messages are pre-written or coming from a script.
Beware if the individual promises to meet in person but then always comes up with an excuse why they can’t—especially if those reasons are related to money. If you haven’t met the person after a few months, for whatever reason, you have good reason to be suspicious and it should also be considered a red flag.
Q: Is it ever okay to send money, gifts and gift cards to a sweetheart you haven’t met in person?
G: Never send money, gifts or gift cards to a crush you haven’t met in person. If you have only communicated with someone online or by phone, you should be alert to their intentions at least until you meet. Often, once a relationship is established, a scammer will make up a story about needing money, such as to help with a medical emergency, illness or injury for a family member, or to pay for a visa or ticket to visit you. They may also mention a lucrative business opportunity that they know of and want to help you invest in.
These are all ways of getting money or gifts from you, which may happen repeatedly over a period of time. Typically, during this stage the scammer will make plans or promise to meet you, but will cancel these meetings last-minute due to an ‘unforeseen mishap’ or ‘catastrophe’, before one day disappearing completely, leading to you losing your funds.
If something seems off, it probably is, especially if things seem to be moving quickly and seem too good to be true. It’s better to be safe than sorry, so you can always run the situation through a trusted friend or loved one. If you’re very suspicious, contact your local scam-watch group, or immediately contact your financial institution and the police if you have already sent funds.
Q: What information should never be shared with a new love connection?
A: To better protect yourself, don’t share personal information including bank accounts or credit card numbers. On top of this, be careful what you post and make public online. Make your social media profiles private as scammers can use details shared on social media and dating sites to better understand and target you. Platforms that provide tools to nurture high engagement with potential victims enables scammers to build a convincing narrative, which they use to justify giving them money on the pretense of being in dire need.
In saying that, using social media and the internet can also be to your advantage. Research the person’s photo and profile using online searches and reverse image searches to see if the image, name, or details have been used elsewhere. You can use video chat to validate if the person is who they say they are (but still be cautious of their intentions).
Q: What can you do if you suspect that your friend or family member is a victim?
A: Romance scams can be difficult to recognise for the victim, for men or women, because they have an emotional investment in the relationship. Sometimes, it is difficult for friends or family members to convince victims that they’re being scammed, because of the emotional attachment that the victim has built with the scammer. In these cases, it is sometimes helpful to direct the victim to websites that explain scams, or show them news stories and documentaries of similar victims. Documentary shows such as Netflix’s The Tinder Swindler provide a good overview of how a love scam works, so potential victims can spot it from a mile away.
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