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Online romance fraud: how scammers target their victims

As Valentine’s Day approaches, the use of dating apps by people aiming to make new romantic connections ramps up. Unfortunately, according to a new study led by Georgia State University, as many people are looking for love, increasingly more scammers are looking for ways to steal their money – a process known as “online romance fraud.”

“We have this explosion of crime taking place online. In the physical world, maybe you can scam one or two people at a time. But thanks to social media and technology, a scammer can send an email or chat message to hundreds of people at once, just trawling for victims,” said study senior author Volkan Topalli, a professor of Criminal Justice at Georgia State. “The scammers are effective because they are experts in extracting funds from people, and they’re also experts in identifying a vulnerable target.” 

According to a cybercrime report published by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in 2021, online romance fraud losses have spiked recently, reaching almost $956 million, and thus making romance fraud the third-ranked cybercrime overall in terms of losses.

By gathering data from over 10,000 online testimonials on websites where victims share their experiences (such as or, the researchers aimed to identify risk and protective factors for those targeted by romance scammers in order to develop a model for victim vulnerability and resilience.

“We really wanted to take advantage of open intelligence data sources to find out what these fraudsters were doing that was so effective. The purpose is to identify patterns and uncover strategies that users can adopt to protect themselves,” said study lead author Fangzhou Wang, a doctoral student in Criminal Science at Georgia State.

The analysis revealed a set of common and frequently successful techniques of deception, including the use of visceral, emotional triggers or influences, the manufacturing of apparent crises, the exploitation of similarity and likeability, or the eliciting of the victims’ sense of guilt. Other red flags that dating app users should pay attention to are scammers quickly asking their victims to migrate the relationship away from the app to a private email or messaging service, or pushing their victims into making quick decisions.

According to the scientists, common risk factors for potential victims include a lack of familiarity with new technologies (particularly in older people) and overconfidence or inexperience with initiating relationships online (especially in younger people).

Since scammers tend to use very similar linguistic cues to deceive their victims, online service providers should develop algorithm-based predictive tools to detect fraudulent attempts. “Potentially, dating and social networking sites can draw from the information from our study to launch educational or awareness programs for those who were previously victims, and those who may be potential victims,” Wang said.

“There’s nothing wrong with starting a relationship online. But you’re basically putting yourself out in the Wild West. You always want to keep in mind what we call ‘cyber hygiene,’ which means really looking at your interactions online and the apps that you use and being very cognizant of protecting yourself,” Topalli concluded.

The study is published in the American Journal of Criminal Justice


By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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