Not everybody on the Internet is whom they seem to be

Online dating fraud cost victims millions last year. Be vigilant and protect yourself!

You scroll through profiles on a dating site and you see a nice girl who you might like to date. You can send her a message — and she’ll answer in a kind and lovely manner. She wants to know you better! She wants to talk to you! But behind the guise of that girl there is no actual girl, but a beardy cyber-criminal that only wanted to get your phone number in order to scam you.

Recently Russian police arrested two men from Smolensk who masqueraded themselves as young attractive girls to steal hearts of men from Moscow and then threaten them and trick them into sending rather big sums of money. The criminals actually earned about one million Russian rubles in this scheme.

Though such stories are as old as the Internet itself, they are unlikely to fade away in the near future. On the contrary, this scam is on the rise: British media reported that online dating fraud in UK cost victims “a heart-breaking £27 million” last year. In the USA nearly 5,900 people lost more than $86.7 million last year as the result of romance scams.

It’s noteworthy that fraudsters change their target audiences with time as more people use Internet and dating sites. Though people of all ages can fall to romance scam, now in both countries victims over 40 prevail: about two-thirds in UK and more than three-quarters in the USA. Surprisingly, many of them are women.

Story of the 67-year-old Oxford-educated professor Judith Lathlean hit the headlines in December 2015. Her online romance cost her one broken heart, £140,000 and huge debts. Emotionally devastated woman even risked losing her own house.

The scammer came up with a heart-melting story. He introduced himself as an aged engineer raised in South Africa who lost his wife to cancer (though he fought by her side until the very end). He called Judith several times and was going to “meet” her in person when his father died and his house was ransacked. He never asked for money directly — just explained the situation. Judith offered help on her own — and it was a mistake.

‘I think of myself as an intelligent, caring person. The scam was sophisticated and clever, designed to target my vulnerable points. I don’t feel foolish because I understand exactly how it happened,’ – she said to DailyMail. – ‘If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone. And if my story can help just one person avoid falling into the same trap, then it’s worth telling.’

You can read the full story of Judith Lathlean in this article on DailyMail.

In August 2015 Robinson Agbonifoayetan, was sentenced to three years in prison after he and his mates frauded two women. Victims fell in love with ‘a general from the US Marines’ and parted with almost £300,000.

However, you should not think that middle-aged women are the main victims. Moreover, real figures on romantic frauds are never known — many victims, especially married people, prefer to keep silence. Do you remember the scandalous Ashley Madison hack? In this case website employees behaved like scammers: as there were only a few women on the site they created accounts of pretty girls themselves. These bots tried to lure newcomers into chat and get them to pay money to continue the conversation.

So just believe us: anyone can be reeled in. This is how Monica Whitty, a cyber-psychologist from the University of Leicester explains the situation to the DailyMail:

‘You don’t have to be “vulnerable,”‘ — she warns. — ‘You can be a highly intelligent person with a good job. The strategies these fraudsters use are highly sophisticated”.

Monica has acquired much experience working with the victims of romance frauds. She admits that victims meet double pressure: they blame themselves, and their friends and relatives do the same. ‘Most crime victims are given sympathy and support, but in the case of online fraud, friends and family are furious. Their response is, “How could you be so gullible?”

Apart from money fraud, criminals use dating sites to spread advertisements, viruses and malicious links.

All these cases should become a powerful warning for all of us: not everything on the Internet is what it seems. So don’t believe people you don’t know until you meet them in person and never transfer money to them no matter how perfect they are. It’s also a good idea to install a reliable antivirus — it will not protect your broken heart, but it can secure your personal and financial data from bots and phishing links.