Online dating is a big, lucrative industry, but not just for the owners of the dating platforms. Research from Mintel suggests that the value of the UK online dating market will reach £225 million by 2019, which is hardly surprising given that roughly a third of new relationships now start via a dating website. What is less known is that online dating is a highly lucrative target for scammers too: fraudsters conned UK victims out of more than £33m in the last year, according to Action Fraud.

Not all romance frauds are financially or even criminally motivated. There are many reported cases of people using false identities online in order to fulfil some need that they couldn’t achieve offline due to a lack of confidence in appearance or personality, for example. This may sound fairly harmless but the practice of creating fake identities by using real images of other people, freely available online, can lead to uncomfortable and potentially damaging situations. In the case of romance fraud for criminal gain (like money laundering, gifts or money), the typical strategy looks a little like this:

After identifying a potential victim on a dating site, the fraudster tailors his (the majority of reported cases concern male fraudsters) profile to match what his victim is looking for, a process that includes finding a suitable picture of someone on the internet, like a soldier or a travelling doctor. Once contact is established, a series of questions are asked that help the fraudster confirm that the victim is worth his time. If yes, a chase of varying time length occurs, culminating in one or several requests regarding money or items of value.

The police are confident that the £33m figure mentioned above is considerably lower than the real amount. People are reluctant to report instances of romance fraud because they feel embarrassed, tricked into doing something that is suddenly and painfully revealed to be a big mistake. It could be that men are being duped just as much as women, but soaking up the losses silently – this £2.59 ‘How to dupe a man in online dating’ guide certainly suggests that is the case. Given the rise in popularity of online dating in general, and increased coverage of scams, why do they continue to happen?

Online dating survey

Hope, desperation, and loneliness play their part at some point in the scamming process but assumption also features: many genuine daters assume that the platform they are using has vetted its users, but this isn’t usually the case. Unless the site explicitly points out that all users have attended interviews or had background checks, it is likely that a profile can be created with nothing more than an email for verification. It’s not that dating sites don’t try to help – nearly all will list information about never sending money or financial information – but the message is clear: currently, safe online dating is only guaranteed if the user educates themselves and actively avoids suspicious situations. To help, we’ve chosen four signs that show you may be talking to a potential scammer:

Their details appear everywhere. An easy first step check for any online dater: Use Google’s ‘search by image’ function to see if your potential partner’s profile picture appears anywhere else on the web under a different name. You could also paste the body of their first message into search engines to see if they appear on any reported scam sites.

They’ll be based in a distant location. If you’re serious about creating an online relationship that could lead to a meeting, it’s logical that you would only strongly engage with someone who you could feasibly meet up with in the future on a regular basis. If they are based abroad, be especially wary of the following points…

They’ll test the water. You’ll receive a request for a small financial gift, perhaps subtly. For example, they may mention that they would use their webcam more if it wasn’t so old, or that they are waiting till payday to buy a ticket to a concert. If you volunteer to send them money for those items, they’ll know that you’re open to the idea of sending money in general.

They’ll shift channels. To maintain control of the communication environment, the scammer will request that your chats move to other, more private channels like Skype or email (rather than staying within the app or site you originally met on). Social platforms like Facebook allow them to create more credible appearing profiles, using other collaborators in the scam to build out social backgrounds.

Preying on the emotionally vulnerable in this way is a reprehensible act, but one that the online world makes possible and easy. The problem is that the way we prove we are who we say we are (or the way we prove that someone is who they say they are) is outdated. It is too easy for someone to create a fake identity or claim the identity of someone else and, until a solution is found, the dating industry should adopt a better level of professionalism and regulation. It must find a way to offer a great user experience AND a safe platform – happy online daters and a positive industry reputation are the best way to ensure this modern phenomenon continues successfully.

Although romance fraud occurs less than other types of fraud, the amount of money people stand to individually lose is higher. At Yoti, we are working to reduce ID fraud in general by helping people to easily prove who they are, online and face to face. You can find out more about our work here.

By Alex Harvey
Ask me anything: @alextharv

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