How to Spot Online Dating Fraud and Catfish Scams

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Online dating scams go by various names, including cyber romance fraud, online love deception, e-romance scams, virtual affection deceptions, online sweetheart swindles, catfish scams, and many more. Regardless of the term used by newspapers, documentaries and mass media, the format of this criminal activity tends to be consistent, and the effects can be enormously damaging in more ways than one.  

What are online dating scams?

Though online dating scams have been around for about twenty years, which means people are more aware of them than ever before. In recent years their perpetrators have been using increasingly creative and convincing methods to deceive their targets. The scammer begins by creating a fake profile on dating websites such as Tinder and Bumble or social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram (even LinkedIn isn’t without its scams). They then find people who they believe will fall for their bogus romantic approach, with the aim being to use emotional manipulation that will inevitably lead to the victim transferring money to them.

E-romance scams in the UK

It’s tempting to think that this kind of thing doesn’t happen in the UK very often. However, in October 2023, the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau (NFIB) shared some eye-opening statistics. During the previous financial year, the NFIB had received 8,036 reports of romance fraud, amounting to over £92m sent by the victims to their virtual attackers. The average loss per victim was £11,500, although some people will have lost a bit less and others a lot, lot more. 

You would also be forgiven for assuming that e-romance scams only happen to members of the older generation who don’t fully understand technology, but they’re actually a lot more common. Whilst the figures above are shocking in themselves, UK Finance’s Take Five to Stop Fraud campaign uncovered that 38% of people who dated someone they met online were asked for money, and 57% of those who were asked for money said they gave or lent it. This just goes to show how prevalent online romance scams are today right here in the UK. 

How does an online romance scam work?

Though some romance fraudsters stand out a mile (usually due to their messages being poorly written and their behaviour being excessively needy), others use far more sophisticated tactics. In general, cyber romance fraud will usually include the following activity:

  • Fake profiles: Scammers create fake profiles using stolen photos and fabricated personal information. These profiles are designed to appear attractive and genuine to potential victims.
  • Building trust: The scammer will realise that they need to invest time into gaining the trust of their victim, which means they’re ready to engage in lengthy and interesting conversations before moving to the next stage of their deception. Instant displays of affection or even blatant flirting are likely, as this is how they become closer to their victims in relatively little time. A conventional online dater may be willing to bend the truth to seem more appealing to you, but a scammer is often willing to go to extreme lengths to deceive you. Many scammers are operating from third-world countries where the money they receive affords them to live a luxurious lifestyle so they can spend days and weeks researching common interests and topics that they believe you are passionate about.
  • Respectable false identities: It’s common for a romance scammer to claim they serve in the military, own a business, or live/work abroad. This makes them seem more alluring or exotic to their victims, which in turn makes it easier to elicit sympathy. Meanwhile, saying that they’re located far away provides a solid basis for not being able to meet in person.
  • Asking for personal information: This in itself can be a phishing scam, as the fraudster will probably ask for personal information such as your address and bank account details. This may seem innocent but instigating conversations with the intention of directing them towards certain areas is a way that a scammer can convince you to organically provide information which is often used for security questions such as your first pets name or mothers maiden name.
  • Early expressions of love: If the scammer feels that they’ve hooked a victim, they usually begin professing their love much sooner than expected. This is intended to charm the victim into letting their guard down entirely, as a sense of urgency can cloud their judgement. 
  • Financial requests: As soon as the romance fraudster feels the time is right, they will ask for money. This is framed either as the escalation of a previous situation they’ve mentioned during the conversation, such as falling on hard times, or an unexpected emergency that requires financial assistance. Another common scenario is when the scammer requests money for flights so that they can come to the UK to visit the victim – sometimes temptation can have an even greater effect than sympathy and guilt. In addition, requests for direct transfers of money (e.g. from one bank account to another) are becoming less common, as scammers can ask for payment in cryptocurrency, through foreign exchange trading platforms, or via a third party intermediary. One thing to watch out for is the progression of financial requests, we often find that the initial request is a small sum, maybe even something as small as a taxi or a meal but this is often proof of concept. You may be happy to share £5, £10, £20 with the person even if you are not head over heels in love, or 100% convinced they are genuine. Once they know that you are willing to send money the requests often increase in frequency, urgency or amount. In some instances we have had clients receive phone calls pretending to be medical professionals, claiming that if the victim doesn’t pay £500 to cover their insurance excess that they cannot cannot operate and may lose their life.

How to spot the red flags of internet romance fraud

As well as being aware of the patterns described above, there are other red flags you should look out for when speaking to people online:

  • How did you meet them? Did they message you out of the blue even though you don’t have any mutual friends on the social media platform? This is very suspicious and should be either ignored or approached with caution.
  • They never want to speak via video call or meet in person. They will usually have some excuse, such as they’re in military barracks, their phone isn’t working properly, they have poor Wi-Fi, the different time zones are inconvenient, they live in a house with family or friends, etc. This is because they don’t want to reveal their visual identity to you as it won’t match the profile.
  • Do they seem genuine? Many online scammers treat their activity as a career, they will commit 8-10 hours per day duping their victims into believing their story. For that reason they can sound incredibly genuine but ask yourself, are they overly dramatic in their romantic expression? Are they promising the world if you were to meet up, such as money, a big house and a glamorous lifestyle? 
  • They change plans at the last minute. Many cyber romance fraudsters will actually suggest the two of you meet in person, only to change plans shortly before the event. This could be a case of switching the meeting place to somewhere they know you’ll have trouble getting to, with the intention of making you feel that they have nothing to hide otherwise they wouldn’t have suggested you meet.
  • As a general rule: Male online dating scammers use affection and romance on their victims, whereas women tend to share more flirtatious and sexual content. 

If something smells fishy, it’s probably phishy

It’s truly shocking the lengths phishing scammers will go to in order to trick someone into sharing their personal details and parting with their cash. We live in an age where the internet is used for more everyday tasks and activity than ever before, and many people consider online dating to be more safe, convenient and fun than the traditional style. This creates a goldmine for online scammers, as all they need is a phone or computer, a Wi-Fi signal and a social media profile to carry out their harmful deeds. 

When an online dating scam is successful, the victim loses so much more than just their money. They can feel stupid, unwanted, embarrassed, ashamed, anxious, depressed, fearful of using the internet ever again and, in particularly severe cases, they may contemplate taking their life. The problem is so widespread that a global event takes place on 3rd October each year – World Romance Scam Prevention Day is dedicated to educating people on the risks of online love deception and how to avoid becoming the victim of a catfishing scam.

Medi Abalimba: The fake Premier League footballer who never had to flash the cash

Here’s a brief yet effective example of how a scammer can deceive even those in authority. Medi Abalimba was a washed-up footballer who pretended to be Premier League Chelsea midfielder Gael Kakuta. His working knowledge of the football industry and shameless audacity enabled him to trick high-end bars into offering drinks on credit, including a £25,000 champagne tab in a West End club. 

He also ran up a five-figure bill at three luxury hotels in London and £11,000 on limousines, simply by claiming to be Kakuta and that he had ample credit with American Express. Thankfully, Abalimba was caught, put on trial and jailed for four years, ending his reign of fraudulent VIP living. However, though justice was served, it shows just how convincing scammers can be when they commit themselves to personal gain.

How to avoid online romance scams

Simply becoming more aware of the scale and nature of online dating scams will make you naturally cautious and increase your ability to spot one. Still, here are a few additional tips for how to avoid catfishing scams and e-romance fraud:

  • Check the privacy settings of your social media account to ensure that strangers and connections can only see the information you’re happy to share with them.
  • When it comes to strangers, it’s okay to be sceptical, it’s actually advised. 
  • Research and verify the person contacting you. Sometimes a basic Google search could be enough to show cracks in their story. Especially if their profile is public, do they have friends that seem to be from the same area, are they all male or all female?
  • Keep your personal information to yourself. Sure, you can tell them what music you like and whether you have a cat or dog, but be cautious when offering more in-depth or sensitive information.
  • Take it slow. Romance scammers usually try to fast-track the conversation in order to force a premature emotional connection. Don’t succumb to pressure and ask yourself why they’re acting in such a manner.
  • Insisting on a video call before meeting in person is a great way to verify their identity. If they continually refuse, something isn’t right.
  • Trust your instincts. If something about the situation feels off, it probably is. If something seems too good to be true, same again. 
  • Never send money to someone you haven’t met in person. Scammers create stories to exploit the kind, trusting and generous nature of their victims. If they ask for money, say no and stick to your guns.
  • Report suspicious activity to the social media platform or dating site, as this helps to protect other users.

Need help from a private investigator?

If you’re worried that you may be falling victim to an online romance scam and need a professional opinion, we’re your trusted and versatile private investigator in the UK. To find out how we can help, call Reveal PI today on 0330 808 9344 or get in touch using our contact form.

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