Looking for love in the 21st century might only be a swipe away but relying on an online dating site or app to meet a future partner can also come with its fair share of financial pitfalls that were recently highlighted in Netflix's The Tinder Swindler, experts say.
The true-crime documentary is about three women who say they were conned out of $500,000 by Shimon Hayut, who changed his name to Simon Leviev and claimed he was a wealthy businessman and son of Israeli diamond billionaire Lev Leviev.
The Tinder Swindler, which was first broadcast on February 2 and has been watched by about 50 million people globally, tracks how Hayut gained the trust of women he met through Tinder before asking them for large amounts of money by pretending his life was in danger.
Despite the potential financial hazards, online dating became increasingly popular during the Covid-19 pandemic movement restrictions. This trend is set to continue, with global revenue of matchmaking services estimated to reach more than $2.5 billion by 2024, up from $655 million in 2020, data analysis company Statistica says.
“After the coronavirus pandemic broke out and millions of people were forced to stay primarily at home, some changes in everyday activities occurred. What is more, online dating became one of the few opportunities to socialise within existing restrictions,” Statistica says.
But as people increasingly turned to digital services during the pandemic, online dating scams proliferated, says Maher Yamout, a senior researcher at cyber security company Kaspersky.
“The rise of digitisation has its benefits but the downfall is that it has led scammers to find new ways of masking themselves behind the walls of the internet,” Mr Yamout says.
“There are many like The Tinder Swindler lurking on dating websites, apps and on social media, moving step-by-step closer to their targets.”
In 2021, Kaspersky conducted a survey of 18,000 dating app users across 17 countries, including the UAE, and found that 51 per cent of respondents were targets of catfishing or scams.
In the US alone, romance scams have resulted in one of the highest financial losses when compared with other online crimes, the US Federal Bureau of Investigations said this month.
Its Internet Crime Complaint Centre received 23,768 complaints about online dating scams in 2020 and the losses associated with those complaints came to about $605m, the FBI said.
“Most often these romance scammers leave victims financially and emotionally devastated. Many victims may not have the ability to recover from the financial loss,” said Luis M. Quesada, special agent in charge of the FBI's El Paso Division.
Staying safe online and protecting your identity are two elements that are crucial to protecting your finances, says Carol Glynn, founder of Conscious Finance Coaching in Dubai.
But people should also have an element of scepticism, especially when it comes to money, she says.
“If people are asking for money, just keep your eyes open and watch out for any red flags.”
But what are the red flags and how do you protect your life savings from online romance fraudsters? Here, Mr Yamout offers his top tips on how to stay safe online — and ensure you don’t lose money to a dating scam.
What is an online dating scam?
Online dating scams are also known as catfishing and happen when a person believes they have made a connection or have matched with someone on a dating site or app, Mr Yamout says.
However, that “someone” they have connected with can be a fraudster who is using a fake profile.
“The fraudster manipulates the other person to earn their trust and get easy access to personal information. Ultimately, the information is exploited in multiple ways, either for money or identity theft,” he says.
Is there more than one type of dating scam?
There are a number of dating scams that people should be aware of, which Mr Yamout says include:
Fake dating websites: These sites claim to offer legitimate encounters but are set up to mine financial information. The questionnaire to sign-up to the website is focused more on details like finances, a mother’s maiden name or first school, for example.
Inheritance scam: This is when a scammer claims that he or she needs to marry someone to inherit millions of dollars from their family. The scammer will usually contact the victim to say that he or she cannot transfer the money to another bank within the country due to a lack of money to pay a marriage tax. Over time, a rapport is built and the scammer then requests financial help to transfer the money to the victim’s country.
Malware scam: This is a common threat on dating sites. On Tinder, for example, someone might have several conversations with a person, who will offer more information about themselves on fake social media profiles. Visiting these profiles will direct you to a webpage that contains malware that can allow scammers to steal personal data, leading to identity theft and financial fraud.
Code verification scams: This involves a message or email requesting an individual to verify their account on a dating website. The message may claim the website is updating their records to explain why a person has received it. Scammers will also encourage you to click on third-party links, which ask you to fill in personal data such as your name, address, contact number, birth date, bank account details and more.
Photo scams: This involves the scammer encouraging the victim to send their contact details in exchange for intimate photos of the scammer. In reality, the scammer is playing on emotions to fish for personal data, which can be used for financial fraud.
What are the common tricks fraudsters use to lure their victims?
Scammers on online dating sites are skilled at playing on emotions and grooming their victims over time, Mr Yamout says.
They use a range of narratives such as asking for money to fund flights or pay off debts, which is similar to The Tinder Swindler, he says.
They may also say they need money for medical treatment or their valuables have been seized and they need financial help to get them back.
Do online dating fraudsters prey on a particular type of person?
About 48 per cent of respondents to Kapersky’s 2021 online dating survey said the main reason they use dating apps is to meet and interact with new people, while 33 per cent use them to make friends.
However, older people are often selected because they are likely to have more financial assets, Mr Yamout says.
“This is a vulnerable world,” he says. “To put this into perspective, the survey also reveals that 38 per cent of 18 to 24 year olds and 62 per cent of people over 65 are sharing their location online.”
How can you avoid falling victim to an online dating scam?
It is important to use dating apps safely and not give away private information such as your address or the name of the company for which you work, Mr Yamout says.
“Always use the built-in messenger function of dating platforms instead of sharing your phone number or other messaging apps,” he says.
“If you decide to move to another messenger, make sure it’s set up to keep your data private and protected. [Also] Google yourself and imagine that you were trying to find information on you — see what you can find. You may be surprised by the data you find.”
How to spot the red flags
There are a few red flags that can help you to identify if a person you have connected with is genuine — or not, Mr Yamout says.
These include suspicious spelling or grammar, messages that appear to have been copied from other websites or dating profiles and an intense courtship that evolves quickly.
“Not everyone looking for love online has the soul and finesse of William Shakespeare — and there’s certainly nothing wrong with not being a native English speaker — but scammers often cross borders electronically in search of new victims, so truly terrible grammar is a red flag,” Mr Yamout says.
“Strong feelings often abound during the first few weeks of any new romance, but scammers try to accelerate this process even further by offering not only a huge volume of compliments and kind words, but also intimate details of their own life that they have ‘never shared with anyone else’.”
Top tips to protect your life savings from online dating fraudsters
- Do not tell anybody your PIN and CVV2 code on your credit or debit card, or share your login credentials for internet banking
- Before logging in and entering your banking credentials if requested by a dating app or website, make sure you are not using a fake website with an unprotected connection
- You should use separate cards: one with low balance to pay for things on the internet and another for your savings
- Tracking your payments will help you realise the pattern you have fallen into by transferring money frequently to your online dating connection
- Use strong and unique passwords and two-factor authentication to protect your financial accounts. This way, you know who is trying to access your online banking account
- Always log out of all financial services before you close a browser tab or click the "back" button. Better still, do not log into any financial services over a web application while chatting online — Source: Kapersky