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Durban - Few things are sacred to today’s cybercriminals – and true love certainly isn’t one of them. Dating scams are a fast-growing area of cybercrime – rising by a third year-on-year in some countries, and ranging from fraud, to identity theft to malware attacks, says Carey van Vlaanderen, CEO at ESET South Africa.

For today’s gang of professional cyber criminals, few things are sacred, and true love certainly isn’t one of them.  Fake wedding invitations has been a standard spam attack for years, but cyber criminals have begun to play longer, more complex games to lure in victims.

Sadly, these can include ‘love’ affairs on dating sites that are faked purely to steal. Criminals use fake profiles and attempt either to dupe a lover into sending money or installing malware on their computer.

Dating and romance scams are fast-growing areas of fraud online and there are a huge number of fake profiles on dating sites. Some of the fake profiles re made by unfortunate people in a misguided attempt to find love while others may be used to lure customers to the site, as alleged here.  Of course, you want to avoid all of these, and you want to steer clear of that undermined percentage of fake profiles that are simply bait for cybercrime.

Don’t be a victim, check out these tips and take them to heart:

If you’re suspicious, Google the message text he/she sends to you - Unlike spam, dating scams require a fair amount of work from the criminals – so they tend to cut corners. Often, the ‘romantic’ message you receive as been send to dozens of other people. Put quotes around it and Google it: if it brings up results from former victims, you should start to worry. Ask advice from a site administrator, or a friend.

Don’t be ashamed to ‘play detective’ - Millions of people use dating sites, but they DO carry risks that normal dating does not.  you don’t know whether the person you are speaking to is real, where they’re from, or someone different. In the old days, you would often meet people via friends of friends – but you don’t have this reassurance online. So, play detective. If they won’t tell you where they work, worry. Likewise, if they keep asking questions about you, but never answer any about themselves, worry. Search or them on LinkedIn, or just via Google – it’s almost impossible not to leave traces online these days. If someone has not, they probably aren’t real.

If their photos are really glossy, be afraid - Oddly, one of the giveaways that the messenger may not be who they seem to be is that they look too good – as in, the photographs are professional. Few normal people would make this much effort – but for a cybercriminal, the easiest way to create a fake profile is to use glamorous pictures from the web, shot by professional photographers.

Don’t hand over information bit by bit - Dating sites are a huge growth area for cybercrime, and scams vary from simple cons, where people are asked for money for visas, to classic phishing. The problem is that handing over information is a normal part of romance – but perfect for identity thieves. Until you have verified that the person is genuine, do not give out your address, ever, and if possible, limit other details such as workplaces and contact details.

Don’t share ‘racy’ photos with people you have not met - One variation of today’s dating scams is a simple one – blackmail. Do not hand over pictures you would be embarrassed to publish online, otherwise you’re at risk from blackmailers. Even racy messages can be a tool for criminals - particularly if you’re attached.  Keep things clean until you know your ‘romance’ is real. Allowing someone to see you via webcam, or to, for instance, undress on webcam, is particularly risky.

If your messenger sends you a photo which you need to click on, worry - A Nigerian ‘scam factory’ exposed by Brian Krebs used various methods to defraud wannabe lovers – but one was to promise an image, but instead send a file containing a banking malware. Keep antivirus software running and be wary of profiles without images in the first place. If they have an image, ask them to add it to their profile.

Don’t be persuaded to switch to another social network, email or IM - Millions of people use dating sites, and the ‘big’ sites are facing epidemic levels of fake profiles, phishing and other scams, so cybercriminals will often persuade victims to switch to another site, either a social site or simply email. This way, they can continue the fraud in private.

If you think, “it’s all happening so fast!” it’s time to worry - Dating scams are one of the few areas of cybercrime where gangs play a ‘long game’ – sometimes stringing victims along for weeks or months. But most are impatient to be paid – so any online ‘lover’ who declares undying love in the space of a few emails should be regarded with extreme suspicion.

Do not send money, ever - The ‘red flag’ moment comes when your ‘lover’ asks for money. Do not send it – whether it’s for flights, or for life-saving surgery. Even if the story is so tragic you feel that you must help.

If the subject of money comes up early in the relationship, be wary. If someone outright asks for a bank transfer, you may well be dealing with a criminal. Speak to site administrator if possible.        

Do a risk assessment - With all these warnings, and all those scammers out there, you might be wondering if looking for love online is just a bad idea. We asked advice from ESET Security researcher, Stephen Cobb, who met his wife through the analogue precursor to online dating sites: the ‘personal column’. Cobb says he thinks online dating does offer some of the advantages of running a personal ad in a newspaper, like establishing mutual interests and a degree of compatibility before going to the trouble of meeting in person, but he warns “adding layers of technology to match-making is not always helpful”.

Cobb notes that back in the 1980s it was normal to switch the communication channel quite quickly, from pen and paper to phone calls and a face-to-face meeting. “Talking on the phone and seeing someone in person is a lot harder to fake than emails, online chat, and digital photos” ‘says Cobb, who agrees that a face-to-face meeting has its own set of risks, but says these can be reduced by agreeing on a public place, in daylight.

The Mercury