Romance scammers (catfishers) prey on people’s emotions and desires for companionship. To identify targets, perpetrators frequently create fake profiles on dating sites and social media platforms and use chat rooms and other forums and websites.
The perpetrators of this cybercrime use deception and manipulation to gain the trust of their victims. During these con games, the perpetrator claims to have fallen in love with the victim and continues to show her affection through declarations of love or other overt acts (such as writing love letters, poems, and songs) or small gifts. Following establishing rapport and trust with the target, the perpetrator attempts to persuade the target to provide money, goods, or other services.
A popular story used in a romance scam is that the perpetrator has an emergency requiring the victim to send money (e.g., unexpected hospitalization or other health-related emergencies). The perpetrator may also ask for money to travel, assist with unpaid bills, buy or rent a house or apartment, etc. Alternatively, the perpetrator may ask for money to pay for a wedding or engagement. If the victim gives the perpetrator money, the victim may not hear from him or her again or may receive additional money requests.
In one case in France, a criminal gang used dating sites to find potential victims, taking advantage of the victims’ loneliness and gullibility. The criminals created fictitious relationships with their victims. After gaining a victim’s trust, they asked for assistance, including money, to resolve a situation. A request for assistance in getting a suitcase full of cash out of another country was made in one case. Offenders usually vanished after receiving the money and did not contact their victims again. In another case, the scammers met with their victims to extract additional funds (thereby committing a romance scam online and in person).
The goal of a romance scam is to entice someone into a relationship (albeit a fake one, unbeknown to the target). A perpetrator can pretend to have a similar background and experiences as the targets. This information is frequently available online in the target’s dating profiles, social media accounts, and other personal information sites. The perpetrator uses a fake image, usually an attractive image obtained without authorization from a website, platform, or app that resonates with his or her target. The target determines the type of profile that is encountered.
Some perpetrators who target retirees, for example, create profiles of people who are similar in age, are retired, and/or have recently been widowed. Perpetrators’ fake profiles frequently include employment, which would explain significant gaps in communication with the target or the ability to travel. People posing as military personnel, for example, have created fake profiles on dating websites. The perpetrators pretended to be male members of the United States military in one romance scam that targeted women over 50 on online dating sites. Perpetrators open bank accounts in various names to receive funds sent by their targets and/or obtain money orders from targets, which are then distributed to other conspirators in the perpetrators’ country.
These scammers can manipulate their victims into willingly or unwittingly aiding and abetting criminal activity. As a result, their targets may engage in money laundering, deliver controlled drugs and/or other illegal goods, and defraud others of money or goods, whether knowingly or unknowingly. Mules are the term for these people. Mules may be motivated to engage in illegal activity by fear, love, or the prospect of financial reward. Mules are used in various crimes and cybercrimes, including money laundering and online fraud.
Money mules may be wilfully recruited and/or solicited online to help criminals launder money by opening a bank account and receiving money from others, which is then forwarded to the criminals in a variety of ways (through wire transfers, by purchasing prepaid cards, and mailing those cards, through online payment platforms, etc.). Other money mules may be duped into opening bank accounts to receive or transfer funds from a criminal impersonating a romantic interest for what they believe to be a legitimate purpose, or they may be duped into using their bank account to receive and transfer funds from a criminal impersonating a romantic interest (or legitimate employer).
The signs of romance scam
- Someone you met online recently expresses strong feelings for you and requests a private chat.
- Their messages are frequently illegible and ambiguous.
- Their online profile contradicts what they say to you.
- They might ask you to send them personal photos or videos.
- First and foremost, they earn your trust. Then they demand money, gifts, or your bank account or credit card information.
- They may try to blackmail you if you do not send the money. They will ask for more if you send it.
What can you do?
- Use extreme caution when sharing personal information on social media and dating sites.
- Always think about the dangers. Scammers can be found on even the most reputable websites.
- Slow down and ask lots of questions. Check the person’s photo and profile to see if the content has already been used.
- Keep an eye out for mistakes in spelling and grammar, inconsistencies in their stories, and excuses like their camera not working.
- Don’t give out any information that could be used to blackmail you.
- If you agree to meet in person, let your family and friends know where you’ll be.
- Be wary of requests for money. Never send money or give out personal information, including credit card numbers, online account numbers, or copies of personal documents.
- Sending them money in advance is not a good idea. Money laundering is a criminal offense, so don’t transfer money for someone else.