In 2020, reported losses to the FTC for romance scams went up by 50% from 2019, totalling $304 million. And things weren’t exactly good before: Romance scams have cost people a fortune for 3 years running, according to the FTC. Their latest report suggests a steady rise in these kind of scams generally and ponders the impact of the pandemic. If nobody can go out, it stands to reason that dating in the virtual world would experience a surge of interest.

Love is most definitely in the air for people up to no good.

Some key findings

  • Scams often begin on social media but are unexpected. Potential victims aren’t necessarily on a site for dating in the first place.
  • The use of gift cards for sending money to scammers increased 70%.
  • Reports of money lost increased across every age group in 2020.

Many of the old tricks are still in play, because they’re tried and tested. Throw enough of them out there and a scammer snags a bite eventually. It only takes one or two direct hits to make a small fortune. Meanwhile, people face losing huge sums of money which is often not recoverable.

Sending all my love…and my money

The report mentions many reports of large losses involve scammers claiming to send a victim money. Once the victim receives it, the scammer invents a reason why they need it sent back, or forwarded to a third party. This is how people end up as money mules. As we often mention, this is a bad situation to be in. While the mule ends up in various degrees of legal trouble, the anonymous scammer pulling the strings gets away with it.

It’s unfair, and very cruel for people who would naturally assume they’d done nothing wrong.

We see a variety of romance con-tricks involving requests to move funds. One we examined recently adds a small spin to proceedings. The scam works as follows:

  • The scammer connects with a victim on a dating app, and supplies photos and audio recordings.
  • After some small talk, the scammer says they want to send the victim some money. The scammer “can’t use their account” from their location, but they’re happy to give login details so the victim can do it themselves.
  • The scammer sends a link to a fake banking website where the victim is likely to be asked to complete a transaction, to increase their trust in the scammer, or for their own personal or banking details.

Gift cards: a wealth of opportunity

As mentioned already, gift cards are an attractive proposition for people up to no good. They’re easy to obtain and can be bought in small amounts. Unlike a few years back, they’re not limited to a narrow selection of items or stores. This is good for fakers, because they’re less likely to make victims feel like they’re being sent on a wild goose chase. They can pretty much buy anything and it’ll be of value to the scammer, either through usage or selling on. If gift cards are ever mentioned on dating apps or on social media, you’ve every right to be suspicious.

Steering victims away from the theoretical safety of their online space is a common tactic, not specific to dating scams. (Gaming scams will often take victims away from their gaming console ecosystem to third party sites, for example.) Romance scammers often try to lure people away from the dating apps where they met. This is good for the scammer, problematic for the victim: The digital paper trail becomes muddied, certain protections and safety mechanisms may not apply or be usable, and so on.

A trick of the eye

Catfishing romance scams use fictional personas that often rely on stolen images. People will use photos of models from different parts of the world, or pretend to be U.S. Army soldiers, or even celebrities, to get the job done. All they care about is grabbing the cash, and it doesn’t matter how much the victim on the other side of the screen is impacted.

To combat this, people should make use of reverse image search to see where else the images appear. AI generated images are also common in this realm though, so reverse image search is useful but not foolproof.

On a similar note, refusing to do video calls could be suspicious. They may simply be shy, but one would probably expect video for dating is a reasonable expectation a year into the pandemic.

Tips for avoiding romance scams

Attempts to get you away from the platform where you met, requests for cash, or requests for a lot of personal information / logins should set alarm bells ringing. Asking for money for a visa / travel, or sudden medical aid, should too. Sending scans of passport pages is also a bit unusual. Anything which goes from 0 to 60 in the blink of an eye or seems too good to be true should definitely cause you to be very careful.

Be sure to check out our tips for dating safety and security before you next delve into the world of digital dating. The last thing anybody needs right now is financial fallout caused by a bogus romantic interlude. The more you can reduce the odds of that happening, the better everyone using dating platforms will be for it. Let’s consign these fakers to the digital rubbish bin, where they belong.

The post Romance scams: FTC reveals $304 million of heartache appeared first on Malwarebytes Labs.

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