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Romance scams and Cybersecurity: Will You Be My Scamentine?
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Romance scams and Cybersecurity: Will You Be My Scamentine?

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Ásta Guðrún Helgadóttir
6 min read ∙ Feb 10, 2022
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Falling head over heels with someone is a wonderful feeling. It is something we all wish to experience – at least once in our lifetime. Falling in love can, however, make one see the world through rose-tinted glasses. It makes it difficult to spot the red flags of online romance scams properly. This is something cybercriminals are very well aware of and use to their advantage. They phish for people’s love and affection through social media and dating platforms for monetary gain. 

Example of an online romance scam. Woman's hands holding smartphone with a dating app showing a match with two user photos.

Manipulating people by showing them romantic affection is nothing new, both in real life, and fiction. With new technology, romance scams have become a profitable business for scammers all over the world, and so – so much easier.

All is fair in online romance scams

The FBI estimates that online romance scammers defrauded victims of over $133 million dollars in 2021. This is a new record, and a conservative estimate. The fact is that we will probably never know the true scope of financial loss that can be attributed to romance scams. There are examples of people spending thousands of dollars – their whole life savings. Some have even had to declare bankruptcy, after becoming a victim of elaborate romance scams.

Romance scams cover image. Woman outside holding phone receiving love emojis and hearts.

Nothing is off-limits for romance scammers. Relying on people’s goodwill and sympathy, they often pretend to be in some kind of monetary trouble. Some claim to live in an unstable economic or political environment, or even in abusive familial situations. Simultaneously, they “love-bomb” their victims with their smooth talk, making the victims feel wanted and loved. Nothing is off-limits and when they’ve drained their victim of financial resources, they disappear.

Scam, Actually!

Considering how common online romance scams are, it is a surprise that they are not talked about that often. This is because of the stigma of being a victim of a romance scam. The victims often feel a great sense of shame or even denial, that they have been fooled.  And this is what romance scammers rely on: shame and, perhaps to some extent, denial. That the people they are scamming are too ashamed of falling for the scam, and will not report it. Alternatively, when confronted by the obvious signs of a romance scam, the longing for it to be real is so strong that it can be blinding. 

Woman in bed at night holding a phone. Above phone are emojis with ambulance, syringe, money and worried face. This is an example of an online romance scam and the scammer asking for money due to a medical emergency.
Romance scammers ask for money for a number of reasons. One such reason is sudden medical emergencies.

Like with a well-designed phishing attack, anyone can become a victim of an online romance scam. Gender, age, sexual orientation, or gender identity doesn’t matter. If one is out looking for love online, it can happen. Being prepared and knowing the classic red flags of romance scams is the key. They are indicators that the person you’re chatting with online is, perhaps, not the one and only after all.

6 ways to spot the red flags of online romance scams

The red flags are obvious when you know what to look for, and here are some:

  • The “match” might try to move the conversation away from the original dating platform. That way, they make sure that the discussion can continue even if their profile is reported and suspended.
  • The “match” confesses love and affection very early on in the conversation. However, they become angry or sad if their requests are denied.
  • The conversation may feel effortless and there is a great sense of “understanding” or “flattering”. This is all a part of the scam to make the potential victims more emotionally invested in the “relationship”.
  • When searching for their information online, it is as if they don’t exist. Alternatively, you might find out that they are using someone else’s profile picture and name.
  • Early on, they request money, typically because of some emergency or a dramatic event in their lives. This may start small, but increase as the “relationship” evolves. 
  • The “match” avoids meeting in real-life or having a phone call or a video call. They may claim bad internet connection or time differences. If the distance is great, they will request money for the trip. Due to some unforeseen reasons they cannot show up at the last minute. In reality, they’ve just pocketed the money.
Inside, computer screen showing money transfer site where someone is about to send a wire transfer as a result of an online romance scam. Emojis on top of photo depicting a woman saying no and a no entrance traffic sign as a warning.

Romance scammers are professionals in creating a sense of love, lust, and affection. They rely emotional investment from their victims. This makes the victims more likely to send them money. In some cases they also send personal information that can be used for identity fraud. When the scam is over, the scammers rely on the victim’s emotions again: shame or denial, or both.

What is love? Baby don’t scam me

You or your loved one, friend, or colleague – can all fall for an online romance scam. The sad truth is that the scammer is only after your money or personal information. Many of the people who fall for romance scam share some commonalities that make them especially vulnerable to these scams, such as loneliness and validation seeking. 

Woman propped up in bed at night holding a smartphone. Her expression is of shock. Angry and cursing emojis coming from the phone. This is an example of an online romance scam where the woman has denied a request from the scammer.
When requests, any requests, are denied the romance scammers are likely to send angry messages and even threats.

Raising awareness and knowledge about online romance scams is important for our society. This is one of the big taboos when it comes to cybercrime. Romance scams are a big criminal industry that relies on people not talking about it. This forces the victims to suffer in silence and shame.

Business or pleasure?

So why should a workplace care about its employees personal life and send them security awareness videos about romance scams? When creating a cyber-secure workplace, fostering a culture of understanding is the key. Cybersecurity goes beyond the workplace. Learning about these types of online scams creates a good security culture and also creates a more cyber resilient society which benefits all of us. People who are cyber-aware at home are likely to be cyber-aware at work. Also, victims of online romance scams could be utilized in an attack against your business.

Dark room where a man can be seen from behind. The man is conducting multiple online romance scams but one smart phone is depicted as "Blocked" due to an unsuccessful scam. Multiple computer screens show that the scammer is looking at profiles of multiple users.
Romance scammers are often playing the same scam on multiple victims at a time.

We’re all in this together.

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Ásta Guðrún Helgadóttir
6 min read ∙ Feb 10, 2022

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