YOU’RE FAMILIAR WITH the drill. An exotic stranger needs help, and you’re the only one able to provide it. On any given day, a handful of those pleas still file into your email’s spam folder. And if you replace “collect an inheritance” with “find true love,” they’re an increasing menace for dating apps and services.
Online dating scams aren’t new. But they are an increasingly important front for criminals, who in turn use increasingly sophisticated methods to snare their marks, and take them for whatever they can. A recently released list, by a fraud-busting company called Scamalytics, of the top lines and photos used in profiles by online dating grifters shows that while the range of sophistication may vary, the end goal is always the same: To fleece romance-seekers out of their money. The pick-up line “I am not interested in games or drama” cracks the top 20, which sounds legitimate enough, but so does “having past events shape your life is one thing carrying the past as a burden that sits heavily upon your shoulders is not the way i view life.”
There are millions of scam online dating accounts created each month, says Scamalytics co-founder Dan Winchester. His company, which he founded in 2011, detects up to 250,000 per month, and was born out of a healthy combination of necessity and self-interest. He himself runs a dating site in the UK. The increase in online dating scammers, he says, has grown in step with the popularity of the sites and apps themselves.
“As with all dating services, there came a point that it hit the radar of the scammers, and it suddenly became overrun. Suddenly I had to stop doing new features and trying to acquire new users,” in order to keep up with squashing scammers. There was no dedicated screening service at that time, Winchester says. So he made one.
Well, he did along with an acquaintance, Nick Tsinonis, who already had expertise using machine learning to help match dating site users based not on their expressed preference, but on behavior. The result, Scamalytics, is a company that’s able not only to identify a number of key profile traits—in the “low hundreds,” says Winchester—but to measure how they play against one another for a more complete picture of who’s real and who’s swindling.
“Features that in isolation may not give you too much information, in combination become much more powerful,” says Winchester. “We then take the learnings from that academic exercise, and try to scale them up into a production environment that works at enormous speed.”
Some of those indicators are proprietary, but a few are fairly obvious. Fake photos are usually a giveaway; when in doubt, do a reverse Google image search. If it turns out to be a model, or really anyone other than who the profile says it is, that’s a scammer. Geographical mismatches are also bad signs, such as someone claiming to be in Brooklyn when their IP address points to the other side of the planet.
Scamalytics also keeps track of the most popular pick-up lines used by online dating scammers. That’s not to say they’re the most effective; many, in fact, perform grammatical acrobatics that barely qualify as English. It turns out that all those people parsing dating profiles for grammar above all else are protecting themselves not just from bad dates, but from bad actors. The most popular con-man profile text in the UK, for example is “so please i want you to get back to me here with your email address so that i can send you my pictures so get back to me thanks.” Hard to imagine swiping right on that.
Quantity of text isn’t a great indicator, says Winchester, in part because of the growing popularity of bots. If one bot network pushes out the same garbled phrase to millions of profiles, it can quickly skew the pick-up line popularity contest. These bots aren’t necessarily looking for love, or even for a direct cash transfer; they’re often simply trying to convince their marks to install something, like an app, in a case of direct marketing gone gross.
“In some ways the target isn’t really the victim of anything other than having their time wasted, and installing a game that they don’t necessarily want,” says Winchester of these bot-based shakedowns. “But the operator of the bot is collecting payments for generating downloads, without ever having to interact with the user themselves.”
If someone’s going to fall for a fake profile, that’s about as innocuous a result as one can hope for. The bigger danger comes from human interaction, where, as in those familiar scam email exchanges, the person behind the profile doesn’t want your heart; they just want your money.
They can be harder to spot than you might think. While the UK’s favored scammer line sounds ridiculous, the top spot in the US goes to “i am very easy going and laid back.” Okay, so it’s no Pablo Neruda. But most people wouldn’t blink if they saw it in a real person’s profile.
Likewise, scammers use current events to provide cover stories that explain why they’re in, say, Nigeria. When Boko Haram kidnapped a group of school girls last spring, Winchester said, dating profile fakers would claim to be there abroad as part of a US special forces mission. In reality, they were Nigerian con artists, hoping to be sent money to pay for a flight they would never take.
“The sad reality is that the most effective scammers will tend to be the human beings who build trusting relationships over a long period of time with their targets,” says Winchester. “And their targets genuinely fall in love with those individuals, even after the scam has been executed… The victim isn’t willing to accept that they’ve been scammed, or does accept that they’ve been scammed and is still in love with the scammer.”
There are a few ways to protect yourself from online dating scammers, most of which are common-sense tests of whether they are who—and where—they say they are. The same rule of thumb with email scams applies to online love, though; if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. Especially if they ask you for money.