A person in a white t-shirt and blue jeans sits cross-legged, typing on a laptop. Only legs, arms and torso are visible.

Flirting with fraud

The word ‘fraud’ is Latin in origin (‘fraus’) and means ‘deceit’, which tells you something about how long people have been cheating and swindling each other. And although we have become more sophisticated, many duplicitous acts have largely remained the same. People are still falling foul to scamming techniques that have been used for hundreds and hundreds of years.

“The Internet simply means that while your customers can reach you easily from anywhere in the world, you can also be exposed to more criminals,” says Quentyn Taylor, Director of Information Security at Canon EMEA. “And for many, you are a millionaire in relative terms.” He refers, of course, to the fact that many of the online fraudsters are operating in economies where a couple of hundred Euros represents a small fortune. He adds that from the moral perspective of these criminals, their victims can “afford” to lose the money, which is how they justify their actions. “Of course,” he warns, “there are some scammers who have zero morals and are quite happy to take everything you have.

Understandably, victims are often embarrassed and reluctant to talk about their experience. Romance scams, in particular, are far more common than you might expect. This kind of fraud can leave victims both financially and emotionally devastated, playing out over months, sometimes longer, as the criminal builds a ‘relationship’ with their victim. “Romance scammers hunt specialist websites and apps, looking for people who are likely to be receptive to them. Someone who perhaps doesn’t have a support network around them,” explains Quentyn. This doesn’t necessarily mean dating sites either. As the New York Times recently reports, scammers are turning to “any social media platform — Instagram, Facebook, games like Words With Friends”, or in the case they describe in their article, an online community hub, where neighbours recommend services or discuss local issues.

A person looks at their mobile phone, held in their right hand.
‘Romance scammers’ have a deep understanding of how to manipulate their targets and will skilfully sell a happy vision of the future.

Once a connection has been made, fraudsters ‘groom’ their target, giving detailed accounts of their lives and painting a convincing picture of a friend and confidante. They will usually move their victim onto more ‘private’ online platforms, from where their incredibly inventive ways to extract money can be more easily accomplished. They may allude to the fact that money is tight or that they’d like to meet face to face but cannot afford the travel costs. However, there are documented cases of victims being convinced to set up businesses with their scammers or make joint investments that turn out to be an elaborate way to extract funds.

On the face of it, you’d think that alarm bells would immediately ring, but Quentyn points out that the criminals “are expert psychologists – by training or through long experience.” They have a deep understanding of how to manipulate their targets, skilfully selling them a vision of the future. In this way they can often actively ‘farm’ their victims, keeping the relationship going for as long as they can and gleaning sporadic amounts of money over a long period of time that add up. In this way, a criminal can slowly and methodically extract very high sums of money and the victim is often unclear as to how much they’ve actually handed over. The sheer volumes of these kinds of crimes are simply breath-taking, as it’s rare for a fraudster to focus on just one victim. “This is their job,” stresses Quentyn. “This is how they make their living. The often don’t even use the word ‘victim’, they refer to their ‘customers’.”

Fraudsters ‘groom’ their target, giving detailed accounts of their lives and painting a convincing picture of a friend and confidante

Besides uploading your online beau’s photo into Google reverse Image Search to see if the photo has been used elsewhere, there is no currently real ‘technology’ to prevent this kind of confidence trickery. Quentyn admits that protecting yourself from romance scammers simply takes a cynical eye, but there are also some very basic ‘red flags’ to be aware of that are the hallmarks of such fraud:

Some things just don’t add up

Gut instinct can sometimes be overridden when you feel loved, cared about and have your sights set on the future. But are there sometimes strange inconsistencies in your conversations? Obvious knowledge gaps when they talk about their job? Or they use words that are inconsistent with a native speaker of your language, even though they say they are? Don’t ignore these, they can be really important early warning signs. 

Is everything moving really quickly?

While whirlwind romances do exist, it’s always a very good to have a step back and a sense check. A couple of weeks of chatting online really isn’t long enough to establish pet names or profess love. Perhaps speak to a friend or relative and ask their opinion. If this was happening to your best friend/child/sibling, what advice would you give?

Are you being encouraged to move onto a private platform?

If you’ve ‘met’ on a dating site or other kind of online social environment, scammers don’t want to take the risk of their activities being found out, so they’ll encourage you to talk to them elsewhere, usually via text, email or messaging app.

Opportunities to see each other are regularly thwarted

Video calls suddenly can’t happen, or disaster seems to strike every time you arrange to meet. Obstacles are framed as part of the rocky path to true love and are almost contributing to a heightened sense of urgency in finally meeting. Sadly, the crescendo is likely to involve a lack of funds to make it happen and a request to you to provide them.

These criminals are experienced, smart and convincing, and as a result, they can be really tough to identify. “There is a natural selection at play here,” explains Quentyn. “The criminals who fail, get arrested, or simply stop doing it because it’s not working. The successful ones can keep going. The result is a level of very high competency.” He advises always taking a big step back, pause and consider the very real chance that you might be being defrauded. And never making any rash decisions when it comes to handing over money – especially when it’s to someone you haven’t met.

October is European Cyber Security Awareness Month. Discover more about how you and your business can stay safe online by visiting the campaign website

Written by Marie-Anne Leonard

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