Warning over surge in ‘romance’ scams in South Africa – with criminals using new tools

 ·14 Feb 2024

Security experts are warning that the rise of AI and AI-powered assistants like ChatGPT have allowed scammers to up the ante in their fraudulent activity – particularly those that target lonely hearts looking for love.

February is a month that is synonymous with romance – with people of all ages sporting rose-coloured lenses in attempts to find that special someone.

Cybersecurity and anti-fraud agencies are warning that the month of love sees a massive surge in scams targeting users of social media and online dating apps.

It is estimated that hundreds of millions of people use online dating platforms, and almost five billion people use social media. Unfortunately, these platforms have become rich hunting grounds for scammers.

Individuals from all walks of life and age groups can fall victim to these types of scams, which are becoming increasingly convincing due to the use of deepfake photos, voice calls, videos, and even letters or poems generated by AI-powered assistants like ChatGPT.

“So-called romance scammers typically create fake profiles to interact with users, build a relationship, and ultimately manipulate them to extract money,” resulting in both financial losses and emotional trauma to victims, said regional director at cybersecurity company Fortinet, Doros Hadjizenonos. 

Nazia Karrim, Head of Product Development at the Southern African Fraud Prevention Service (SAFPS) said that it is important to note that romance scams are not the only way people are being swindled out of their money, with SAFPS noticing that romance scams are increasingly used as a gateway to run other scams.

Regardless, according to the FBI, the United States alone saw around 24,000 people collectively lose nearly $1 billion to romance scammers in 2021. Fortinet said that there is an increase in these reported cases in South Africa, “leading to some victims losing millions, their life savings, or their pensions.”

Additionally, South Africa has seen a surge in serious and violent crimes committed by criminals who lure people through online dating apps.

Things to look out for

Fortinet has highlighted several warning signs that individuals should be mindful of when engaging with a potential romantic partner online, which are:

  • Love bombing – Rapid declarations of love, discussions of marriage, and excessive flattery.
  • Distance – Persistent excuses for being unable to meet in person, along with a reluctance to engage in phone or video calls.
  • Requests for money – Initial small requests that gradually escalate to larger sums.
  • Unsolicited investment advice – Claims of being a skilled investor and promises to help make easy money.
  • Drama – Seeking urgent financial assistance under the pretense of a medical emergency, accident, arrest, or other unforeseen events, often accompanied by a plausible explanation for their inability to access their funds.
  • Requests for explicit photos – Seeking private photos that could be exploited for extortion.
  • Inconsistencies in communication style – Multiple scammers taking turns to manipulate the victim.

Hadjizenonos said that it is crucial to be careful while using the internet and avoid sharing personal information, sending money or private photos, or falling for get-rich-quick schemes.

“Scammers will become very interested in your life and interests while being vague about theirs. Once the trust has been established and romantic emotions have started to develop, scammers typically present their victims with a sad tale intended to pull on their heartstrings; This story is followed by a request for money,” said Karrim.

Hadjizenonos urges people to “make use of the platform’s privacy settings and research their love interest’s social media footprint – if there’s no history and just one photo, this should be a red flag.”

“Scammers often steal other people’s profile pictures, so a reverse image search may indicate whether the new contact is who they say they are,” he added.

What can I do?

Fortinet said that while technology is a major contributor to the issue, it can also help solve the problem.

“AI-enabled analytics can be used to pick up patterns in chats and raise alerts – without compromising individual users’ privacy,” said the company. “These tools could spot warning signs like persistent requests for personal details or money; platforms could also use biometric data to verify users against government identity systems.”

“Remain open to the magic of finding love this Valentine’s Day, but remember to tread carefully and stay vigilant; It’s crucial not to let romance cloud your judgment,” said Hadjizenonos.

“In response to the growing need for a proactive approach to fraud prevention, the SAFPS launched Yima… a one-stop-shop website for South Africans to report scams, secure their identity, and scan any website for vulnerabilities related to scams,” said Karrim.

Regarding romance scams, Yima has created a tool called Verify’m. “Verify’m works by biometrically verifying a person’s identity against the records that the Department of Home Affairs has on file; If the biometrics does not match the information you have on the person, or there is no information, please proceed cautiously,” concluded Karrim.

Read: How scammers are taking advantage of hijacking victims in South Africa

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