The holiday romance scam
THE EVOLUTION of romance and relationship-related con artistry online has been a long one.
Indeed, the so-called Nigerian Prince scam predates the internet, and appeals would be sent via what's now referred to as snail mail to snare the unwary.
Most modern e-mails consist of blanked appeals for help or assistance, related to involved and detailed stories of misfortune or loss or issues moving money from foreign accounts.
In one twist, e-mails from a name and e-mail address lifted from messages ask for financial help from a familiar name who is said to be stranded overseas.
The longest con jobs are perpetrated by scammers who trawl singles apps and social media looking for single and lonely people.
Social Catfish, a company dedicated to preventing online scams through reverse search technology (bit.ly/3PO6mB8), finds examples of any image fed into it wherever it can be found on the wider internet, social media feeds and known scammer databases. Results cost US$5.99 for five days' access to the service.
TinEye.com is faster, but finds fewer image instances, while Google Images can sometimes deliver absurd results.
Neither of these free alternatives compares images against known scammers or images used to impersonate them, but if a profile photo turns out to be a stock photo, it's pretty certain you are being set up for a sting.
It would be a safer world if everyone who was interested in pursuing a conversation with an online stranger did due diligence on them, but that doesn't always happen.
Sophisticated online con artists don't do scattershot anymore. They look for indicators of loneliness or an isolated single life, vectoring in on grief, bereavement or sadness.
Social Catfish has published what it describes as a bible for Nigerian men to use on over-40 Caucasian women that includes in its 40 pages of manipulation techniques, a mix of cue targeting and hilariously ill-advised conversation set pieces.
Some of the advice is disturbing in its coolly premeditated approach.
The scam bible urges a thorough scanning of a social media profile to turn up conversation pegs like pets, hobbies or interests.
It also urges potential scammers to be listeners, encouraging their marks to lead the conversation.
The only reassuring thing about the scam bible uncovered by Social Catfish is how aggressively lame the listings of witticisms and pick-up lines are.
The TTPS Cybercrime Unit and corporate communications departments did not respond to calls or e-mailed requests for information on local reports of romance scams.
In March 2021, a 35-year-old security officer met a female Facebook friend for the first time in Freeport on a Sunday night and ended up getting beaten, robbed and ordered to "do an act on an accomplice's toes."
But most romance scammers don't want to meet you, they are just after your money.
The point of elaborately stalking targets, earning trust through extended conversations and intimate wooing is not personal contact, it's cash.
This can take many forms. Victims can be tricked into elaborate money-laundering schemes that include the potential for identity theft.
Fake influencers, sometimes using images stolen from an actual influencer, leverage that familiarity as a shortcut to building trust.
Teenagers on TikTok are also being targeted, and Social Catfish estimates that US$101 million was taken through that platform in 2021, an increase of more than 24 per cent.
Money can be taken through gift cards or money transfers and sextortion threats to circulate privately shared nude photos.
According to Statista, online dating apps and sites have registered steady growth since 2017 and are expected to reach 440.9 million users globally by 2027.
The US Federal Trade Commission reported that U$547 million was lost to romance-related swindling in 2021, an average loss of $2,400 per victim.
It's pointless telling lonely people not to look for companionship online. That's one of the lures of social media.
What you should do.
Before accepting a friend request, review the feed or timeline of that person's account. Look for consistent patterns of posting, longevity on the platform and authentic personal engagement. If their feed cannot be viewed or is extremely short, be concerned.
Don't share personal information. Your address, phone number, bank account information, ID, passport and other identity-related information should only be shared with someone you know and even then only for a reason that's relevant and important.
Don't send money in any form. Not cash. Not bank transfers. Not cryptocurrency. Not gift cards.
Don't invest on the advice of people online that you have never met. Get professional advice.
Mark Lyndersay is the editor of technewstt.com. An expanded version of this column can be found there
"The holiday romance scam"