Dating scams don’t need no Valentine’s Days...

Online dating scams continue to rise

I consider myself to be an organized person. Ok, let me rephrase that. My wife ensures that I am an organized person. With two small children and their numerous clubs, groups and after school activities I must be told where I need to be and at what time (as well as what I am doing there). Handy post-it reminders, text messages and phone calls ensure that I am not allowed to miss much. But one date for which I need no reminding was last weeks Valentine's Day. How could you forget it when it is rammed down your throat from Christmas Day onwards? Is it really necessary though? Do we need one day to show our love/lust/devotion to just one special person? It doesn't matter how bad shape our economy is, it is one day where florists, card shop owners and restaurateurs can sit back and rub their hands with glee.

But other winners in the run up to last week’s Valentine’s Day were the online dating sites. This is a big business these days, with TV, radio and newspaper ads pitching different themes on essentially the same audience - the lonely hearts. Whether it is a dating service for people in the armed forces, doctors and nurses and even ones for those already married, every angle seems to be catered for. In our increasingly busy lives, finding time for romance seems to have been a major casualty. The vast majority of our actions, including our love lives, are controlled from a device which fits in the palm of our hand. The smartphone is the device that has revolutionised both Love and Lust and has singlehandedly driven a massive growth in popularity in online dating sites. They all make it seem so easy; complete an online profile, upload a picture, pay your money and bingo; prospective partners with like-minded interests in German Football, Belgium Trappist beers and the work of Hergé will start appearing in your inbox.

Most of the time these will be genuine people. However, users of these sites bare their innermost souls to the world in the hope of finding Mr Right or Miss Right, and they have become perceived easy pickings for cyber criminals. In most instances, it is very easy to set up online profiles on these sites. Many do not carry out any verification checks on their members, meaning that Martine, 35 years, GSoH, loves long walks in the country and the music of Coldplay could actually be a fictitious character devised to extract personal and financial details out of a genuine user. In this case, amorous attention really does ‘flatter to deceive’  and before you know, you have given an experienced cybercriminal enough information to pose as you to take out loans and credit cards, running up huge bills in the process.

Recent research into the issue by Online Personals Watch suggests that on some sites the number of fake profiles could be as high as 10% of the total number of profiles. One of the biggest networks, has recently announced a partnership with a security firm who will look at building a database of these scammers and the profiles they will use. The Guardian newspaper went as far as suggesting that more than 200,000 Brits have been conned by fraudsters posing as would-be romantic partners on internet dating sites. However, very few scams are ever reported, with only 730 crimes being investigated by the UK's Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) in a 15 month period prior to 2011, although the monetary value involved was over £8 million.

Unfortunately, social media simply fuels the flames.  We are now accustomed to conducting our relationships via email, SMS, MSN, Facebook and Twitter where we can never be sure that the person on the other end is who they claim to be.  In a recent disclosure Manti Te'o, an American Football player at Notre Dame college admitted that he had been stung by an online character he knew as Lennay Kekua via a connection on social media.  He conducted a whole relationship with someone who he thought was Lennay until she "died" last year.  Except she never really existed, leading to huge embarrassment on his part when it was revealed his "girlfriend" wasn't who she said she was but part of an elaborate hoax.  Fortunately, no material damage was done but others have not been so lucky.

These issues are a massive problem not just for those looking for romance, but also the companies running legitimate online businesses.  So what can be done about it?  The steps taken by in employing a security solution to scan the profiles of members and match against a central list of known fraudsters is a good start. Another could be to use reputation monitoring services from experts such as NetNames Brand Protection to ensure that brands are aware of  what people are saying about their services, such as message boards, forums and social media networks. Whilst it is very difficult to stop fraudsters tricking their way in to innocent users confidence, website owners can be doing more to educate their users as well such as encouraging dialogue between members on their message exchanges where there is an audit trail, rather than social networks, re-enforcing the important not to reveal too many personal and above all never revealing or agreeing to handing over financial details to complete strangers. The promise of love does funny things to our minds but the same caution should be exercised online as you would in any other social situation.

So be careful out there. Temptation can be the root of all evil, especially when special days in the year are allocated for celebrations. For me, well I can relax knowing that my forethought, albeit with a bit of prompting, has seen cordial relations in the Fuller household for another year – well until Easter that is…


Written by Stuart Fuller, Director of Communication, NetNames

2 February 2013