Case Studies

Romance scams

by Mark Rowe

A threat intelligence provider has found an increase in romance scams from social engineering groups based in Africa posing as diplomats abroad. These threat actors are targeting UK-based wealthy middle-aged individuals between 30 to 55, according to Cyjax.

By claiming to be on diplomatic missions abroad, they evade detection, avoiding video calls or in-person meetings. This follows the same modus operandi of military-themed romance scams, but instead use travel as an excuse. Scammers also receive payments from victims using platforms such as Remitly, World Remit, SendCash, and Afriex, helping with the narrative that they’re always on the move. This also raises less suspicion than asking for cryptocurrency or gift cards.

The company’s analysts found romance scammers sending small payments to victims to build trust. These payments were typically below £200 given as one-off gifts. These supposed gifts are then used to emotionally exploit victims, with attackers alleging that they are experiencing financial trouble.

Azhar Hussain, Cyber Intelligence Lead, said: “Despite the amount of information available on detecting scammers, this industry is flourishing. Romance scams differ from other types because they exploit a victim’s personal feelings and loneliness so even though avoiding video or phone calls might be flagged as suspicious, many victims would rather avoid facing the truth for as long as possible. It’s all about gaining and maintaining as much trust as possible and with little tricks like sending gifts, they earn a lot of goodwill from their targets.”

To avoid romance scams online, the firm recommends:

Verify the person you’re speaking to via video or ask for voice messages.
Request a current picture with a visible time stamp or with something specific like a fork or spoon.
Run a reverse image search of their profile photo to see if it matches with someone else.
Avoid sending any money or gift cards.
Avoid giving out any personal or compromising information.
Meet in person before taking communication off the dating site.
Look for inconsistencies around their employment, do they claim to be an army commando one day, then a police person the next?
Verify their background by asking about where they live and what their favourite restaurant is. If they claimed to be from Paris but their favourite restaurant is next to the Eiffel tower, they’re likely lying.

Meanwhile half of romance scam cases reported to the Nationwide building society last year involved a reported loss of under £1,000. This is because romance scams tend to start with a lower payment value as the scammer looks to build trust with the victim. As trust and confidence builds, so does the payment value. A quarter (25%) of cases involve claims for £1,000 to £5,000, while a further 25 per cent involve higher reported sums (over £5,000).

According to the building society, women are more likely to lose more than men, with the average 2023 claim standing at £10,610 compared to £8,181 for men. The building society encourages any customers concerned about a payment to use its Scam Checker Service before making any payment. It is available in branch or by calling a 24/7 freephone number (0800 030 4057). If the payment goes ahead and the customer is later scammed, unless Nationwide told the customer not to proceed, they will be fully reimbursed. 

Jim Winters, Nationwide’s Director of Economic Crime, said: “Criminals can be very convincing and persuasive enough to get someone looking for love or feeling lonely to give them their trust, personal details and ultimately their money, even when they haven’t actually met each other in person. Our data shows all ages can be a target of romance scams as criminals will cast their net far and wide to stand the best chance of snaring a victim. This is why everyone looking for love, regardless of age or gender, needs to protect their wallet as well as their hearts by looking out for any red flags. Be curious, ask questions and involve family and friends who have your best interests at heart. Education is the biggest deterrent to scams.”

Among the society’s advice: scammers often use scripts and work on multiple victims at a time. They avoid using your name and instead use general terms like ‘honey’, ‘babe’ or ‘angel’.

Case study

After a marital breakup, a Nationwide customer started a new relationship with someone they met on TikTok. The other person messaged the customer every other day via WhatsApp – however they never spoke, only ever messaged. The other person claimed to be serving in the United States military and claimed to have sent expensive gifts to the customer. However, they were told that these were stopped on route and would be held until taxes and customs fees were paid. A payment of £7,000 was sent by the customer but the ‘courier’ delivering the packages contacted the customer and said police had seized the gifts and further payments were required. The scam was reported by a family member and initially the customer didn’t want to accept it was a scam. However, on a visit to a Nationwide branch where education about these types of scams and the red flags to look out for was provided, the customer realised it was, in fact, a scam and no further payments were made, while the initial payment was refunded.

The newly-launched UK official campaign Stop! Think Fraud includes online details of some psychological tactics fraudsters commonly use.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) for example stated that between April 2023 and the start of February 2024, some 73 reports of romance scams were made to the PSNI. The biggest loss reported was £130,000 after payments over a period had been made to a woman the person met online. The woman claimed money she was entitled to, was tied up in an overseas business, but she didn’t have a bank account to access the funds. After the initial payment, the woman managed to convince the person to continuing sending money. In another report, £20,000 was reportedly lost by a man who struck up an online relationship with a person he believed to be a celebrity overseas. The contact continued for several months before his bank stepped in.

As for who’s losing money – more frequently they’re aged between 30 and 60 says PSNI and women are slightly more likely to lose money than men, but it’s very finely balanced, according to police; as fraudsters target everyone.

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