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Beware of bad actors bearing flowers

Romance scamming has become a prevalent way to defraud lonely and vulnerable people. LexisNexis Risk Solutions outlines how they do it, and how consumers can prevent it.

Jason Lane-Sellers, Director: Fraud and Identity, EMEA, LexisNexis Risk Solutions.
Jason Lane-Sellers, Director: Fraud and Identity, EMEA, LexisNexis Risk Solutions.

The increasing digitalisation and virtualisation of the world has opened up brand new avenues for bad actors to part hardworking citizens from their money. Perhaps the most popular form is the online scam, which generally comes in two ‘flavours’.

The first method targets a large number of people through mass-market scams, which typically involve sending mass e-mails or text messages offering a prize or windfall. The second method involves targeting individuals personally, such as through a romance scam or impersonation of authority. 

Targeted scams are the ones that most often cause the most distress for the consumer, suggests Jason Lane-Sellers, director, fraud and identity, EMEA at LexisNexis Risk Solutions. He notes that regardless of whether the consumer feels an emotional connection, or believes they are interacting with a government or company representative, they should always be aware that the party may not be who they claim to be.

“Romance scammers, especially, take advantage of vulnerable or lonely people, and these particular scams are becoming increasingly prevalent in South Africa. A significant increase has been witnessed over the past three years – generally, women looking for companionship who are then scammed by men pretending to be who they are not,” he adds.

“Inevitably, these scams are very difficult to curb, given that the modus operandi exploits the emotions of the victim, who believes that they are in a romantic relationship with someone who allegedly cares for them. Furthermore, such communications are usually confidential and very personal, while victims are also often too embarrassed to publicly admit to being manipulated and ultimately defrauded.”

Lane-Sellers notes that the SA Banking Risk Information Centre (SABRIC) has reported that, even in instances where financial institutions have detected that a victim is about to make a payment based on false pretences, the victim often insists on proceeding with the transaction, refusing to accept that they are being defrauded.

“More concerning is that while such scams were originally conducted by fraudsters who tended to work alone, organised criminals have now entered this arena and the scale and sophistication of scams has thus increased exponentially in recent times.”

“Don’t forget that these are crimes that are viewed by perpetrators as low risk/high reward scenarios, and because they do not intend meeting their victims, can be executed from anywhere on the globe. Generally, victims – who appear to be affluent – are identified through social media platforms.”

A typical profile, he continues, would be a middle-aged or elderly widow or divorcee, who appears to have access to large amounts of cash. Such information can be gleaned off a victim’s Facebook or Instagram profile quite easily if the security settings are not strictly applied. Another source of information comes from online dating sites, as the victims usually share data quite freely in the hope of finding a romantic partner.

Offering some advice, as well as outlining key red flags to be aware of, Lane-Sellers indicates that the most important thing is to always be suspicious.

“If you have a supposed romantic interest who asks for money or something of value, think twice before agreeing to perform any such transaction, such as sending money, particularly if all interaction has only been online. Understand that fraudsters typically tug on heartstrings when they ask for cash or gift cards, often elaborating with details like the need to save their small business or to pay overdue medical bills for them or a loved one,” he explains.

“Under such circumstances, try to run such a request by a trusted friend, family member or financial advisor – usually, their fraud detecting radar will sense a scam more easily than someone who is emotionally involved.”

He further points out that fraudsters typically avoid meeting in person or on video, which should be viewed as a high-risk indicator. However, even if the ‘love interest’ agrees to a live video or sends a recorded one, deepfake videos appear very real, so be on guard.

“Other red flags to be wary of include the romantic interest rapidly attempting to move from a dating site to a social media platform; inconsistencies in the facts/history they offer; asking a lot of personal questions that may not have anything to do with your relationship; using time pressure and urgency to pressure you into providing them with funds quickly; and offers to perform the transactions for you via remote software.”

Asked what a consumer should do if they suspect they may have been scammed, he suggests a few points that may help the consumer avoid the worst impacts of the scam, and may even result in them seeing some form of justice.

“Firstly, don’t feel ashamed to seek help, and avoid feeling helpless by taking action. Secondly, immediately contact your financial institution to let them know your suspicion around being scammed. You should also contact law enforcement about the incident and report the scam to the authorities. Finally, if applicable, contact the social networking site or app where you met the suspected scammer, to have the person blocked to prevent further victimisation taking place,” he concludes.

* Article first published on

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