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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Is ‘Rizz’ the Secret to Getting Ahead at Work?

Whether you call it charisma, charm or magnetism, some people seem like naturals. Good news: It can be learned.

By Rachel Feintzeig
Mon, Jul 22, 2024 4 min

Great leaders have it. Gen Z has a new word for it. Can the rest of us learn it?

Charisma—or rizz , as current teenage slang has anointed it—can feel like an ephemeral gift some are just born with. The chosen among us network and chitchat, exuding warmth as they effortlessly hold court. Then there’s everyone else, agonising over exclamation points in email drafts and internally replaying that joke they made in the meeting, wondering if it hit.

“Well, this is awkward,” Mike Rizzo, the head of a community for marketing operations professionals, says of rizz being crowned 2023 word of the year by the publisher of the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s so close to his last name, but so far from how he sees himself. He sometimes gets sweaty palms before hosting webinars.

Who could blame us for obsessing over charisma, or lack thereof? It can lubricate social interactions, win us friends, and score promotions . It’s also possible to cultivate, assures Charles Duhigg, the author of a book about people he dubs super communicators.

At its heart, charisma isn’t about some grand performance. It’s a state we elicit in other people, Duhigg says. It’s about fostering connection and making our conversation partners feel they’re the charming—or interesting or funny—ones.

The key is to ask deeper, though not prying, questions that invite meaningful and revealing responses, Duhigg says. And match the other person’s vibes. Maybe they want to talk about emotions, the joy they felt watching their kid graduate from high school last weekend. Or maybe they’re just after straight-up logistics and want you to quickly tell them exactly how the team is going to turn around that presentation by tomorrow.

You might be hired into a company for your skill set, Duhigg says, but your ability to communicate and earn people’s trust propels you up the ladder: “That is leadership.”

Approachable and relatable

In reporting this column, I was surprised to hear many executives and professionals I find breezily confident and pleasantly chatty confess it wasn’t something that came naturally. They had to work on it.

Dave MacLennan , who served as chief executive of agricultural giant Cargill for nearly a decade, started by leaning into a nickname: DMac, first bestowed upon him in a C-suite meeting where half the executives were named Dave.

He liked the informality of it. The further he ascended up the corporate hierarchy, the more he strove to be approachable and relatable.

Employees “need a reason to follow you,” he says. “One of the reasons they’re going to follow you is that they feel they know you.”

He makes a point to remember the details and dates of people’s lives, such as colleagues’ birthdays. After making his acquaintance, in a meeting years ago at The Wall Street Journal’s offices, I was shocked to receive an email from his address months later. Subject line: You , a heading so compelling I still recall it. He went on to say he remembered I was due with my first child any day now and just wanted to say good luck.

“So many people say, ‘Oh, I don’t have a good memory for that,’” he says. Prioritise remembering, making notes on your phone if you need, he says.

Now a board member and an executive coach, MacLennan sent hundreds of handwritten notes during his tenure. He’d reach out to midlevel managers who’d just gotten a promotion, or engineers who showed him around meat-processing plants. He’d pen words of thanks or congratulations. And he’d address the envelopes himself.

“Your handwriting is a very personal thing about you,” he says. “Think about it. Twenty seconds. It makes such an impact.”

Everyone’s important

Doling out your charm selectively will backfire, says Carla Harris , a Morgan Stanley executive. She chats up the woman cleaning the office, the receptionist at her doctor’s, the guy waiting alongside her for the elevator.

“Don’t be confused,” she tells young bankers. Executive assistants are often the most powerful people in the building, and you never know how someone can help—or hurt—you down the line.

Harris once spent a year mentoring a junior worker in another department, not expecting anything in return. One day, Harris randomly mentioned she faced an uphill battle in meeting with a new client. Oh!, the 24-year-old said. Turns out, the client was her friend. She made the call right there, setting up Harris for a work win.

In the office, stop staring at your phone, Harris advises, and notice the people around you. Ask for their names. Push yourself to start a conversation with three random people every day.

Charisma for introverts

You can’t will yourself to be a bubbly extrovert, but you can find your own brand of charisma, says Vanessa Van Edwards, a communications trainer and author of a book about charismatic communication.

For introverted clients, she recommends using nonverbal cues. A slow triple nod shows people you’re listening. Placing your hands in the steeple position, together and facing up, denotes that you’re calm and present.

Try coming up with one question you’re known for. Not a canned, hokey ice-breaker, but something casual and simple that reflects your actual interests. One of her clients, a bookish executive struggling with uncomfortable, halting starts to his meetings, began kicking things off by asking “Reading anything good?”

Embracing your stumbles

Charisma starts with confidence. It’s not that captivating people don’t occasionally mispronounce a word or spill their coffee, says Henna Pryor, who wrote a book about embracing awkwardness at work. They just have a faster comeback rate than the rest of us. They call out the stumble instead of trying to hide it, make a small joke, and move on.

Being perfectly polished all the time is not only exhausting, it’s impossible. We know this, which is why appearing flawless can come off as fake. We like people who seem human, Pryor says.

Our most admired colleagues are often the ones who are good at their jobs and can laugh at themselves too, who occasionally trip or flub just like us.

“It creates this little moment of warmth,” she says, “that we actually find almost like a relief.”

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