Don't let the catfishers use you as bait this Valentines Day

Stuart Fuller

In a few weeks’ time, we’ll all be bombarded with reminders that it’s Valentine’s Day; that one day of the year when we’re expected to go over and above to tell our loved ones exactly what they mean to us, with overpriced flowers, a romantic meal that costs three times as much as it should do, and greeting cards that cannot stuff any more hearts onto the cover.

As you may realize by now, I’m not at all romantic when it comes to 14th February, but that doesn’t mean others won’t get carried away with the romance in the air – especially those who’ve taken to the Internet to find the love of their life.

It’s not only the florists, greeting card companies and restaurants that’ll be the winners in a few weeks’ time. Online dating sites will also see a surge in activity, as lonely hearts try to find that one special person.

Online dating is a huge industry today, and despite major data breaches in the news recently, it’s still growing. One such breach was reported by Ashley Madison (OK – not technically a dating website, but in theory two ‘interested’ parties do meet up at a particular date and time), whilst one of the largest dating sites in the world, Match.com, was hit by malware attack at the end of 2015. Undeterred, it’s estimated that 9.1 million people in the UK alone have used an online dating site or app, whilst one in five relationships start in the online world.

There are dating sites and applications to cater for all tastes today – there’s even one for President Trump supporters. Tinder, which is less than five years old, has more than 50 million global users who swipe left or right (mostly left) over a billion times a day. The app passed the 100 million download mark in June 2016.

In our increasingly busy lives, finding time for romance seems to have become a major casualty. The majority of our interests, including our love lives, are controlled from a device that fits in the palm of our hand. The smartphone has revolutionized both love and lust, and has singlehandedly driven a massive growth in the popularity of 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 similar interests in German football, Belgian Trappist beers and the work of Hergé will flood into your inbox.

Most of the time these will be genuine people. However, users of these sites bare their innermost souls in the hope of finding Mr or Miss Right, and they’ve become perceived as easy pickings for cyber-criminals. In most instances, it’s very easy to set up online profiles on these sites. Many don’t 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 it, you’ve given an experienced cyber-criminal enough information to take out loans and credit cards in your name, running up huge bills in the process. According to the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau, there were 3,889 reported cases of romance-based fraud in the UK last year, who were defrauded to the tune of £39 million.

Recent research into the issue by Which?, the UK consumer advice and protection organization, suggests that the number of fake profiles is on the rise – there’s even a term for the creation of fake online personas: ‘Catfishing’. Which? estimates that more than half of online dating users have come across fake profiles, whilst two in five have actually been asked to send money. One of the biggest networks, Cupid.com, announced that it had teamed up with a security firm to build a database of these scammers and the profiles they use.

These issues are a massive problem, not just for those looking for romance, but also the companies running legitimate online businesses. It is all too easy these days to create a fake social media footprint, meaning that all users of online dating websites and apps need to understand exactly who they’re talking to before they agree to the exchange of any personal details – and especially money. All the major sites offer advice to their users, highlighting the tell-tale signs of potential scams. However, with more and more people using the websites, the temptation and opportunity for the fraudsters continues to be attractive to them.

Although it’s very difficult to stop fraudsters confidence-tricking innocent users, I believe website owners could be doing more to educate their users. They should encourage members to limit their conversations with potential suitors to their own message exchanges, where there’s an audit trail, and re-emphasize the importance of not revealing too many personal details. Above all, members should be advised to never hand over their 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. Don’t let temptation be the root of all evil this Valentine’s Day.