As online dating continues to become one of the world’s most popular ways of meeting new love interests, scammers are constantly finding inventive ways of defrauding unsuspecting singles.
Recently, University College London and China’s largest online dating site, Jiayuan, collaborated on a study looking at the emergent scammer trends in China.
The study, called “Quit Playing Games With My Heart: Understanding Online Dating Scams”, analysed more than 500,000 profiles from a popular Chinese dating site, to shed light on the most common and innovative strategies used to trick vulnerable Chinese daters.
The report outlines four main types of scams they discovered on this unnamed dating site, which has more than 10m users.
These were: escort service advertisements, dates for profit, swindlers and matchmaking.
The most detected method of the four, escort service advertisements, uses profiles of attractive young women to take advantage of hopeful male suitors.
However these women are not singles looking for love, but rather escorts whose services are being advertised by an agency.
When analysing the dating site’s user base, the researchers detected 374,051 accounts of this type during their study.
Another scam is dates for profit, which the researchers said has “no parallel on other online services”.
It works like this: owners of establishments like cafes and restaurants hire attractive women to create profiles on a dating site, and chat to a number of potential male victims.
The women then propose a date at the owner’s bar or restaurant, meet the victim and rack up a massive bar bill – making their date pay for incredibly expensive food and drink, as it is customary in China for men to pay for first dates.
The cost of these meals can range from $100 to $2,000, and the profits are then shared between the owners, the woman and the staff.
Obviously after this, they never contact the victim again.
The authors of the study, JingMin Huang, Gianluca Stringhini and Peng Yong said: “The success rate of this type of scam is much higher, because the scammer leverages the desire of the victim to meet an attractive woman. In addition, it is likely that the victim will never realise that he has been scammed, since the date really happened, and the victim possibly had a good time. Therefore, there is a low chance for the owner of the establishment to get caught.”
When analysing the dating site’s user base, the researchers detected 57,218 accounts of this type.
They said that although China’s cultural setting may lend itself better to this type of scam, they don’t see any reason why similar scams could not be happening on dating sites in other countries too.
More advanced criminal groups often play on the heart strings of women looking for love on Chinese sites, with variations on the well-known 419, or romance, scam.
The report identifies these as “swindlers” – creating male profiles that often say they are widowed to first gain sympathy, and then money, from their victims, after building a long-lasting online relationship.
One twist on the classic dating scam in China is the “flower basket” swindler, which has very specific ties with Chinese culture, and aims to make female users hand over large amounts of money.
After making contact, the scammer will build a relationship, and eventually say they want to marry the female victim, but his parents need some proof of the victim’s “good will.”
It is customary in certain areas of China to send baskets of flowers to newly-opened shops, as gifts and to wish good luck.
The scammer will then pretend to be opening a new shop, and will ask the victim to send some flowers to his shop.
He then gives the victim the information of a local florist, who is actually one of the scammer’s accomplices.
Often these shipments of flowers can be very expensive – costing as much as $20,000.
The UCL researchers said they observed that sometimes legitimate users accidentally make the initial contact with fake scammer profiles.
The study reveals that 70% of “swindler” accounts are approached by other users at least once every year.
Although the study reported large numbers of fake accounts adopting these malicious techniques, it also reveals a low turn around in the number of messages replied to.
Around 78% of messages sent by fake accounts were not replied to by regular users.
Whilst it recognises that more research is key to creating stronger detection mechanisms, the paper profiles the likely demographic and behavioural traits of cyber criminals operating on dating sites, which can help sites to improve their levels of detection.
The researchers said: “Aside from law enforcement efforts, online dating scams can be made less successful by improving the effectiveness of detection systems deployed on the online dating site. As we showed in this paper, detecting the more advanced types of scammers, such as “Swindlers,” is challenging, because the activity of these accounts is not automatically generated, and their scams unfold over a long period of time and several exchanges of messages with the victim.
“To detect the majority of these scam accounts, dating site administrators decided to have a better recall over precision for their anti-scam systems, and to employ a team of human experts to vet such detections.”
Read the full report here.