How Online Dating Scams Work—and Who Gets Targeted
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How Online Dating Scams Work—and Who Gets Targeted

If a person is too quick to share his or her ID, it is more likely to be fake

By Bart Ziegler
Fri, Sep 9, 2022 9:05amGrey Clock 5 min

About 30% of Americans have tried an online dating service, according to Pew Research Service. Some people have found compatible matches and even longtime partners. But other online romance ventures have ended in frustration, harassment or outright fraud.

Some of the saddest cases have seen people give hundreds or thousands of dollars to someone they met online. Some think they are lending money to help the person through a rough patch. Others believe they are being let in on a savvy investment. Both realize too late—it was a scam.

Americans reported losing nearly $1.3 billion in romance-related fraud from 2017 to 2021, according to the Federal Trade Commission, greater than any other category of fraud tracked by the agency, including online shopping scams, impostor fraud and identity theft. Even so, the FTC says that likely understates the damage since many people don’t report such losses.

To better understand why some people become victims of online dating scams, and what can be done to prevent it, The Wall Street Journal interviewed Gurpreet Dhillon, chair of artificial intelligence and cybersecurity at the University of North Texas. Dr. Dhillon has researched such fraud and considers it a major online security concern. An edited transcript of the online interview with Dr. Dhillon follows.

WSJ: Describe how an online dating scam usually begins.

DR. DHILLON: Usually, the search by the scammer for a victim starts on one of the many dating platforms. More recently, scammers also have begun targeting the more ethnically oriented dating sites as well.

Scammers typically target older, poorer, less educated and single people. They also scan dating and social-media profiles to find people who idealise romantic partners and relationships and so might be more gullible.

WSJ: What typically happens next?

DR. DHILLON: The victim is usually presented with a picture of an attractive man or woman. Typically, a perpetrator emphasizes his or her credibility and social attractiveness. Scammers often present themselves as individuals with some sort of authority, such as an influential businessperson, military personnel, a research scientist, etc.

Typically, a scammer also creates a false identity, not just on social media but by acquiring an identity document. In our research, we found many occasions where the eventual victim had asked to see an ID while in the online phase of a romance, or in person if the romance advances to that point. But scammers are savvy about creating authentic-looking fake IDs. If the person is too quick to share his or her ID, it is more likely to be fake.

WSJ: What other techniques do perpetrators use?

DR. DHILLON: Scammers sometimes use doctored pictures to show themselves with famous personalities. Some may use “deep fake” software, which allows a person to swap his or her face for that of someone else’s in a photo or video. Scammers will often research their victims to see whom they admire.

In one case in our research, the perpetrator claimed to be a nurse working at a military base in the Middle East and sent pictures of what she said was herself dressed in scrubs. At one point she sent pictures of herself with a purported Army general she said was visiting the base.

Based on information gathered during the grooming stage, the scammer expresses enthusiasm for individuals or institutions in which the victim may place trust—alumni networks, church or celebrity connections. The more successful scammers spend significant time and effort on the grooming stage before engaging in an actual fraudulent act.

WSJ: How does a scammer establish trust?

DR. DHILLON: In one elaborate scheme, a scammer reached out to the victim via Facebook, then used the publicly available information there to investigate friends and connections of the victim. The information was later used to establish social connections with the victim. Online interactions resulted in face-to-face meetings, a false promise of love and eventually a story of financial trouble and the need for help. This “spear social-engineering” attack emphasised similar likes and dislikes to that of the victim.

WSJ: How does the scammer persuade a victim to turn over money?

DR. DHILLON: The scammer may send a small gift or flowers to the victim. In return, the victim may comply with a request to send a small amount of money. Research suggests that when people comply with the first request they are more likely to comply with subsequent requests.

In one case, a 50-year-old woman was scammed by a perpetrator who posed as a high-ranking military official. The perpetrator was quite knowledgeable about military jargon and the subtleties of the job. The woman began trusting the scammer since her dad was a veteran. After establishing trust, the scammer started sending small gifts. This continued for over a year, after which the scammer asked for $5,000 on the pretext of paying a credit-card bill. The excuse was that his salary wasn’t released as he was moving back after military deployment. The scammer returned the $5,000 after about a week. A series of requests followed this, resulting in a total of $250,000 given to the scammer. All along, the victim kept believing in the individual and was confident that he would return the money. He never did.

WSJ: Do some scammers seek things beyond financial gain?

DR. DHILLON: Extorting sexual favours has been widely reported. This can happen when the perpetrator threatens the victim with distributing sexual images or intimate messages procured in the grooming stage. Sometimes a scam may result in identity theft or involuntary involvement in money laundering. In other cases, victims have been used as couriers for smuggling drugs, money and other goods.

WSJ: Why do people fall for these hoaxes?

DR. DHILLON: Romance scammers create situations with an increased likelihood of poor decision-making.

Scammers also focus on visceral triggers, where the victim believes there are significant benefits to such a relationship. In one case, the scammer insisted on the victim joining an insurance pyramid scheme, where each participant recruits and sells insurance policies to others. In the process, the scammer was showcasing the engagement’s potential profitability. The ground was being set for a potentially bigger scam.

WSJ: What types of people seem more likely to be taken in?

DR. DHILLON: While little is known about victims of romance scams, women are reported to lose the more significant sums of money. In the majority of cases, the victims are older than 40, with 50 to 59 being the most vulnerable. Data also suggest that the degree of financial loss increases with the age of the victim.

WSJ: What could dating sites do to curtail scams?

DR. DHILLON: Dating sites should have built-in technical trust-building mechanisms. Simple two-factor authentication can substantially reduce the number of fake accounts by weeding out less-sophisticated scammers. The industry also needs to develop a web-assurance seal program—an outside agency that monitors and ensures that sites comply with the policies.

WSJ: What laws are used to prosecute scammers? Are additional government actions needed?

DR. DHILLON: Electronic-theft and economic-espionage statutes can be applied in certain cases, and in others the statutes called Access Device Fraud can be applied.

The problem, however, isn’t with the legal framework. The problem is ensuring that individuals are sufficiently warned and aware of the nature, scope and breadth of romance scams. At the federal level, a governance framework is required to mandate that dating websites operate in a certain manner. Just like the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act exists for the healthcare domain, something similar is required for online dating platforms.



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Clocking out to Turn Back Time—Vacations That Will Help You Live Longer
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Booming demand for wellness tourism shows no slowing, with travel related to health and well-being projected to have reached $1 trillion last year and to hit $1.3 trillion by 2025, according to the Global Wellness Institute, a nonprofit based in Miami.

Curated wellness travel programs are especially sought-after, specifically holistic treatments focused on longevity. Affluent travellers not only are making time to hit the gym while gallivanting across the globe, they’re also seeking destinations that specifically cater to their wellness goals, including treatments aimed at living longer.

“I believe Covid did put a spotlight on self-care and well-being,” says Penny Kriel, corporate director of spa and wellness at Salamander Collection, a group of luxury properties in places like Washington, D.C., and Charleston, South Carolina. But Kriel says today’s spas are more holistic, encouraging folks to understand the wellness concept and incorporate it into their lifestyle more frequently.

“With the evolution of treatment products and technology, spas have been able to enhance their offerings and appeal to more travellers,” Kriel says.

While some growth is connected to the variety of treatments available, results and the digital world are also contributing to the wellness boom.

“The efficacy and benefits of these treatments continue to drive bookings and interest, especially with the support of social media, influencers, and celebrity endorsements,” Kriel says.

While genetics, environmental factors, and lifestyle choices such as regular exercise, a diet free of processed foods, sufficient sleep, and human connection play essential roles in living well and longer, experts believe in holistic therapies to help manage stress, boost immunity, and ultimately influence length and quality of life.

Anti Ageing and Beyond

“For years, people have been coming to spas, booking treatments, and gaining advice on how to turn the clock back with anti ageing and corrective skin treatments,” Kriel says. However, today’s treatments are far more innovative.

On Marinella Beach in Porto Rotondo, on the Italian island of Sardinia, guests at the five-star Abi d’Oru Hotel & Spa can experience the resort’s one-of-a-kind “longevity treatment,” a unique antiaging facial using one of the island’s native grapes: Cannonau. The world’s first declared “Blue Zone”—one of five designated areas where people live longer than average, some into their 100s—Sardinia produces this robust red wine varietal, the most widely planted on the island.

Known as Garnacha in Spain and Grenache in France, Cannonau supposedly contains two to three times more antioxidants than other red-wine grapes. By incorporating Cannonau, Abi Spa says its unique 50-minute longevity session increases collagen production for firmer, younger-looking skin.

Maintaining a youthful appearance is just one facet of longevity treatments, which range from stress-reduction sessions like massage to nutritional support and sleep programs, Kriel says. Some retreats also offer medical services such as IV infusions and joint injections.

Keeping with the trend, Kriel is expanding Salamander Collection’s existing spa services, such as detox wraps and lymphatic drainage, to include dedicated “Wellness Rooms,” new vegan and vegetarian menu items, and well-being workshops. “Sleep, nutrition, and mindfulness will be a big focus for integration in 2024,” she says.

Data-Driven Wellness

Skyler Stillings, an exercise physiologist at Sensei Lanai, a Four Seasons Resort—an adults-only wellness centre in Lanai, Hawaii—says guests were drawn to the social aspect when the spa opened in November 2021.

“We saw a huge need for human connection,” she recalls. But over the past few years, what’s paramount has shifted. “Longevity is trending much more right now.”

Human connection is a central draw for guests at Sensei Lanai, an adults-only and wellness-focused Four Seasons Resort in Hawaii.
Sensei Lanai, A Four Seasons Resort

Billionaire co-founder of tech company Oracle Larry Ellison and physician and scientist Dr. David Angus co-founded Sensei. After the death of a mutual close friend, the duo teamed up to create longevity-based wellness retreats to nurture preventative care and a healthy lifestyle. In addition to the Lanai location, the brand established Sensei Porcupine Creek in Greater Palm Springs, California, in November 2022.

Sensei has a data-driven approach. The team performs a series of assessments to obtain a clearer picture of a guest’s health, making wellness recommendations based on the findings. While Sensei analyses that data to curate a personalised plan, Stillings says it’s up to the guests which path they choose.

Sensei’s core three-day retreat is a “Guided Wellness Experience.” For spa treatments, each guest checks into their own “Spa Hale,” a private 1,000-square-foot bungalow furnished with an infrared sauna, a steam shower, a soaking tub, and plunge pools. The latest therapies include Sarga Bodywalking—a barefoot myofascial release massage, and “Four Hands in Harmony,” a massage with two therapists working in tandem. Sensei Guides provide take-home plans so guests can continue their wellness journeys after the spa.

Sensei Lanai, an adults-only and wellness-focused Four Seasons Resort in Hawaii.
Sensei Lanai, A Four Seasons Resort

Sanctuaries for Longevity

Headquartered in Switzerland with hotels and on-site spas across the globe, Aman Resorts features an integrative approach, combining traditional remedies with modern medicine’s advanced technologies. Tucked behind the doors of the storied Crown Building in Midtown Manhattan, Banya Spa House at Aman New York—the brand’s flagship spa in the Western Hemisphere—is a 25,000-square-foot, three-floor urban oasis.

Yuki Kiyono, global head of health and wellness development at Aman, says the centre provides access to holistic and cutting-edge treatments benefiting physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and social well-being. Aman’s customisable “Immersion Programs” consist of a three- or five-day immersion. “The programs encompass treatments and experiences that touch every significant aspect to create a path for longevity, from meditation and mindfulness to nutrition and movement,” Kiyono explains.

Banya Spa House at Aman New York.
Robert Rieger

The spa’s “Tei-An Wellness Solution” features 90- to 150-minute sessions using massage, cryotherapy, and Vitamin IV infusions. Acupuncture is also on offer.

“With its rich history of Chinese Medicine, modern research, and the introduction of sophisticated electro-acupuncture medicine, acupuncture has been proven to assist with problems and increase performance,” Kiyono says.

Resetting the Mind and Body

Beyond longevity, “healthspan”—the number of years a person can live in good health free of chronic disease—is the cornerstone of Mountain Trek Health Reset Retreat’s program in British Columbia, Canada.

Kirk Shave, president and program director, and his team employ a holistic approach, using lifestyles in long-living Blue Zones as a point of reference.

“We improve our daily lifestyle habits, so we live vitally as long as we’re meant to live,” Shave says of the retreat. He built the program from an anthropological stance, referencing humans as farmers, hunters, and gatherers based on their eating and sleeping patterns. Food includes vegetable-centric meals sans alcohol, sugar, bread, or dairy.

Guests wake at dawn each day and have access to sunrise yoga, several hours of “flow” or slow hiking, spa treatments, forest bathing, calming crystal singing-bowl and sound therapy sessions, and classes on stress reduction—one of Mountain Trek’s primary goals. The program motivates people to spend much of their time in nature because it’s been proven to reduce cortisol, the stress hormone that can lead to inflammation and disease when elevated for extended periods.

While most guests aren’t aware of how immersive Mountain Trek’s program is when they arrive, they leave the resort revitalized after the structured, one-week program. Set in the Kootenays overlooking its eponymous river, the resort and adventure promise what Shave calls a “visceral experience of transformation.”

“They’re interested in coming to be in nature,” Shave says of the guests. “They hit a wall in their life and slipped backwards, so they know they need a reset.”

Banya Spa House at Aman New York provides access to holistic and cutting-edge treatments benefiting physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and social well-being.
Robert Rieger

This article first appeared in the Winter 2024 issue of Mansion Global Experience Luxury.

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