From the Actrix Online Informer September 2008

Scam of the Month #3 Online love and dating

The Internet can be a scary place if you're not careful, and it's not just viruses and spyware you have to worry about.  Just like the real world, the Internet has its share of baddies out to steal your cash (and your pride) by combining new technology with age-old confidence tricks.

This month we're carrying on with our series of articles on scams. Last month we covered Phishing, spear-phishing and money mules. This month we'll have a look at Love and dating scams.

Let's start by stating there is nothing wrong with Internet dating sites. Getting to know someone online and eventually forming a romantic relationship with them makes a lot of sense in today's world, especially if you're in a situation where it's not so easy to meet new people. Lots of legitimate dating service websites exist and an increasing number of people have found life-partners using them.

So the point of this article is not to warn people off finding love online. It's more about being careful. For every successful online relationship, there's probably another story about a scammer duping someone into sending them money by posing as would-be girlfriends or boyfriends.

It's really a pretty low thing to do to someone. People who fall for love scams aren't necessarily any sillier than anyone else. Often they're at a low point in their lives (and everyone has those) and they're in the wrong place at a wrong time when they're not thinking as clearly as they normally would. Then there's the fact that love is very rarely rational, which is probably a good thing on the whole or none of us would ever find partners. It does mean, however, that even people who are normally very sensible can do things that seem bewilderingly unwise to those not head over heels.

Anyway, I'm not a love counsellor, so I better stop there.

Typically, an Internet dating scam starts with the scammer registering with an online dating service and creating a profile that includes fictional information about themselves and probably an attractive but fake picture. They'll contact someone through the site (or let themselves be contacted) and express interest in exploring a possible romantic relationship, and in due course the relationship will probably move to private email.

Over time, of course, the scammer will work hard to earn the trust of the victim, and make good use of their con-person's knowledge of human nature. They will know how and when to say just the right things to make themselves as attractive as possible. They will talk about their family and job with enough detail to make them seem like a real person who is genuinely interested in the victim. More photographs may be exchanged and, of course, these are likely to be fake as well. In reality, the scammer may not even be the gender they say they are.

After the scammer has established a 'genuine relationship', they will find some way of asking the victim for money. Commonly they'll claim they want to meet in person but say they can't afford the airfare. Another common one is claiming that there has been a family medical emergency and they need financial help to cope.

If the victim does send money, further requests will be made. Scammers usually know just how far they can push a victim, especially when the victim's judgement has been clouded by possibly blossoming love. Eventually, however, the bubble will burst and the victim will come to realise they have been hoodwinked, perhaps after an increasingly anxious wait at the airport for a 'lover' who never arrived. The scammer will be long gone by now and on to their next victim. In fact, the scammer may be stringing along several victims at the same time.

There are a number of variations on this basic scam. The fraudsters may not ask for money directly. Instead, they may ask their victim to cash money orders or cheques and wire them the proceeds. The money orders or cheques will turn out to be fake or stolen and the victim will be left out of pocket and possibly charged with receiving stolen funds. The scammers may also try to trick victims into revealing sensitive information such as credit card number or bank account log-ins.

Some times love scammers bypass dating sites and simply send out random unsolicited emails professing a desire to begin a relationship. Often these purport to come from women in other countries who need to get away from their own country or who are disillusioned with their local men and want someone who care for and value them truly – someone like you, of course!

I've put a few of the emails I've received from overseas 'women' desperate to fall in love with me here. There are lots of reasons I'm not getting too excited about my new foreign harem. The biggest giveaway was that the sending names on the emails didn't match the names signing them off or the names on the photos. Nataliya, for example wrote to me from an email address for one Jeremiah Gilliam. Olga's email address belonged to a Jonathon Samuel.

Dating sites and chat rooms may be legitimate places to meet people online, but I'd be very careful when it comes to unsolicited emails received. Apparently there are genuine Russian women seeking overseas men, but sorting these from the scammers is going to be difficult.

Another way love scammers may seek contact with victims is through Internet chat rooms. This is where the scam has also become much more high-tech in recent years with the emergence of what are charmingly called 'slutbots'.

CyberLover, for example, is a Russian software robot ("bot" for short - but it's a program, not a physical robot) that poses as a would-be suitor in love or sex chat rooms. Apparently slutbots can conduct automated 'flirtatious' conversations with up to 10 people in 30 minutes, and the poor victims don't even realise their just talking to a piece of software.

They can operate in a number of different personality modes, ranging from 'romantic lover' to 'sexual predator' and are intelligently designed to use dialogue targeted at a wide range of personality types. During 'conversations' slutbots aim to get personal information from correspondents and/or lure them to other websites where they are infected with malicious software.

If you begin corresponding with a person online, whether through a site or a chat room, and a romantic relationship looks on the cards, it is wise to remain cautious no matter how well it all seems to be going. Remember, scammers are very good at coming across as the perfect soul-mate. Try to keep your feelings in check until the person has really proved themselves, and view any requests for money as highly suspicious.

If you have gotten to a relationship stage with someone, you would expect that each of you would remove your profiles from any dating sites. If your new 'significant other' doesn't do that, you'd have to ask yourself why. And, While I hesitate to recommend sneakiness, sending them a message from a different address or getting a friend to contact them through their profile might be a way of gauging just how open they still are to other offers.

Of course the bottom line is using your common sense, but unfortunately that's one of the first things to go out the door where love is concerned. It might therefore be a good idea to discuss any new online relationship with someone you trust.

Back in 2002 we did an article on how to be sensible with love online. Feel free to read All about Internet Dating, though after six years it may be a bit dated. A Google on 'online love advice' or 'internet love' or something is bound to retrieve millions of results.

Next month: a quick roundup of a few lesser known scams before we move onto another topic.


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