Back in 1898, the New York Times published a fascinating article, An Old Swindle Revived, in which it lamented the rising number of Americans falling victim to a resurgent 30 year old scam dubbed Spanish Prison Letters.
According to the article, here is how the scam unfolded:
“A man in this country receives a letter from a foreign city. The letter is written as fairly well-educated foreigners write English, with a word misspelled here and there, and an occasional foreign idiom. The writer is always in jail because of some political offense. He always has some large sum of money hid and is invariably anxious that it should be recovered. He knows of the prudence and good character of the recipient of the letter through a mutual friend, whom he does not mention for reasons of caution, and appeals to him in time of extremity for help. He is willing to give one-third of the concealed fortune to the man who will recover it.”
Over a century later, it seems, this old dogged swindle has never waned. Dating and social media sites are now awash with cold-hearted charlatans veiled as well-meaning, good looking soul mate seekers. They mask their true identity under fake photos and troll the internet searching for the emotionally vulnerable, grief-stricken or lonely victims. Early signs are usually telling: they have no mutual friends; they request the victim to interact outside the dating or social media site; or are very quick to profess love.
According to the FBI, romance scams result in the highest amount of financial losses when compared to other internet-enabled crimes. In 2015, romance scam victims reported financial losses of nearly 200 million dollars to the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3). These numbers may be greatly understated as most victims are often embarrassed to come forward with their cases.
Online romance scams come in multiple variations, but here are the two most common:
Online lover turns blackmailer
In this most recent devious scheme, the crooks sweet-talk victims into sharing explicit photos and videos of themselves, promising to diligently protect them from disclosure. Once they have secured the intimate files, they immediately threaten to distribute them to their Facebook or Skype contacts, family or employers unless the victims wire hefty sums of money. In some instances, the swindlers demand the victim to assist in laundering illegal funds. If victim fails to comply with the stipulated demands, the crooks follow through with their threats; emailing the explicit images or videos to the victim’s close acquaintances. At its core, this scheme is designed to humiliate, embarrass and severely hurt non-complying victims. A scammer emailing explicit pictures to workmates scares the hell out of many people.
On the other hand, if the victim yields to the threats, the swindlers often demand additional payments until they bleed the victim dry. The complying victim’s name may also be placed in the ‘sucker list,’ which is shared with other criminals. “Suckers” are victims who have paid ransom in the past, and make lucrative future targets. Whether the victim complies or not, the situation remains a catch-22.
In 2016, a 53-year-old Melbourne widow deleted all her social media accounts, moved out of her home of 17 years and lost most of her savings after her online lover suddenly turned into an extortionist. The con-artist, whom she met on Facebook, had disguised himself as a British businessman based in Hong Kong, with plans to relocate to her home town of Melbourne. Once he had persuaded the unsuspicious widow to share explicit pictures, the affair turned devious. He threatened to share the pictures with her children, Facebook friends and employer unless she paid a substantial ransom.
Online lover desperately needs cash for some dubious emergency
This old scheme, despite being depressingly low in sophistication, remains highly effective. The scammer masquerades as an expatriate working on critical offshore projects; a soldier deployed on overseas mission; or even a clergy doing missionary work in developing countries. Whatever the case, the swindler is so far away that they cannot meet in person. Once they cultivate trust, they persuade their newly found lover to loan them substantial amount of money, usually to settle a dubious bill or finance a lucrative project. This was the unfortunate case of a Texan woman who lost everything to an online romance scammer who went by the alias Charlie. The lady, who had endured an emotionally abusive relationship for 10 years, met Charlie via Facebook after he falsely claimed they shared a mutual friend. After securing her trust, Charlie convinced the victim to wire USD $30 000 loan so he could finish his construction project in California. But as these scams often unfold, Charlie’s requests didn’t end there, he kept requesting more funds until the victim lost USD $2 million.
A number of people often ask, “Who still falls to this crap?” The answer is simple: millions of people, old and young, uneducated and sophisticated, male and female. As Lucy Brown said in the NY Times, “The drive to find a preferred mate is extremely powerful. It’s a reflexive urge, like hunger and thirst, which can cloud judgment and make people less likely to question the motives of an online match”.
Dating sites further complicating the problem
Some dating sites themselves are perpetuating this problem by posting fake profiles or sending messages from the phony profiles to deceive users into thinking someone was interested in them. In 2014, JDI Dating agreed to settle a lawsuit for $616,765, after it was accused of using fake profiles to make people think they were hearing from real love interests and to trick them into upgrading to paid memberships.
Online romance seekers better watch out
Fundamentally, the internet was never designed with security in mind. Inevitably, cyber criminals would soon manipulate some of its core virtues – fast, convenient and ability to instantly reach billions - to perpetrate their malicious activities.
The oldest trick in the book isn’t fading away; it will only grow wider and nastier. Any hope that some emerging technology will shield online romance seekers from the misdeeds of scammers is futile. This is primarily a human issue. The answer lies in well-meaning online romance seekers developing questioning attitudes and exercising extreme judgment. Only that way can they protect their hard earned dough, insulate themselves from needless heartbreaks or public humiliation.
Please note: The views expressed in this article are my personal opinions and are not associated with any particular organisation or employer.
Phil is an experienced head of cybersecurity, strategic advisor, author, and public speaker. He is the Amazon best selling author of The Five Anchors of Cyber Leadership, a practical cyber strategy book for senior business leaders. 2017 winner of ISACA International’s Michael Cangemi Best Book/Article Award, for major contributions in the field of IS Audit, control and security.