Romance fraud is on the rise — and it’s causing a massive headache for European dating startups.
People looking for love online are falling prey to a new generation of “Tinder swindlers” using fake profiles to trick their victims into paying huge sums of money. A proliferation of new dating apps makes it easier than ever for scammers to find targets — and harder for watchdogs to keep track.
UK charity Victim Support says in 2022 it supported 38% more romance fraud victims than 2021. Action Fraud, which collects reports of fraud and cybercrime, counted 8,957 dating scam cases in 2021, and says UK consumers lost nearly £100m to romance fraud that year (an 80% increase on 2020).
That’s bad for business, says Karima Ben Abdelmalek, CEO of French dating app happn. “If a user meets just one scammer on our platform, it damages the image of the product and our users lose trust in us,” she says.
So what are dating apps — and governments — doing to crack down on the scammers and make the search for love a little less bumpy?
Automated scam flagging
Happn, which launched in 2014, has raised $32m and has 130m registered users. It employs 20 full-time moderators who report and ban suspicious profiles in real time, across every time zone.
Suspicious activity could be a new user who spams daters with hundreds of messages and comments; profiles that use bad-quality photos or pictures of super attractive people like models; automated chatbot messages with poor grammar and little or no concrete bio information.
Nobody knows the behaviours of happn’s users better than happn itself
The platform’s data team has also developed its own algorithms to flag potential scam profiles based on unusual activity, location and IP address, and behavioural intelligence — though Ben Abdelmalek was tight-lipped about sharing too many details “to keep the technology confidential”.
Some dating apps, says Ben Abdelmalek, outsource these security systems to third-party providers — which she argues is a less effective solution. “Nobody knows the behaviours of happn’s users better than happn itself.”
Her team has also built a photo database to index images frequently used for catfishing; on happn, the majority of scammers use pictures of attractive women to hook in male targets.
This supports wider data on romance scams: men were more likely to fall victim to a romance scam in 2022, says the UK’s Lloyds Bank. Age also plays a big role, with romance fraud among 65-74-year-olds rising by 75% year-on-year.
Happn declined to share data on the number of scam reports on its app.
When meeting “the one” comes at a high price
Dating app con artists typically overwhelm their victims with affection and praise – a term known as “love bombing” – to lure them in, before quickly asking to go off-platform to messengers like WhatsApp, Kik and Google Hangouts.
“This is because scammers are aware that dating platforms are constantly improving their detection and moderation systems, so they need to work quickly too,” says Olga Petrunina, CEO of Ukrainian sex-positive dating app, Pure. Since being founded in 2012, Pure has been downloaded 20m times.
Once the relationship is taken off-platform, there’s very little a dating company can do to help users who suffer financial damages as a result.
That’s how it all played out for Aalia (not her real name), a 47-year-old healthcare worker from the UK, back in April 2022. She signed up to the American dating website MeetMe after being single for 12 years.
Within a few days she’d struck up a relationship with Michael, a man who said he was an oil rigger from Florida. The two hit it off quickly and within a few weeks were talking about marriage. “He was so loving – I didn’t suspect anything,” she says.
Aalia was smitten. But a month in, Michael started to have cashflow problems. He first asked for a loan of $2,000 for a flight from Mexico to Florida. She set up a Wise account and wired him the money.
Soon the loan requests began to snowball to finance a spiralling list of needs – medical bills, lawyers, travel, food. By November 2022 – just five months after the pair met – Aalia had sent Michael a total of £70k using money transfer apps, fake cryptocurrency platforms and gift cards.
“I am in serious financial trouble and may lose everything; I can’t even put food on my table,” she tells Sifted through tears. “Sometimes, I don’t get up in the morning because I have given him everything.”
Aalia’s experience is a textbook case in how romance scammers prey on dating platform users. She thinks more should be done to educate online daters about fraud because she “had no idea that romance scammers even existed”.
Scams are increasingly sophisticated
Petrunina says Pure experienced a four-fold increase in fake monthly active users in 2021 — and that scammers are using increasingly sophisticated techniques and technology to trap their victims.
A scammer can create multiple fake profiles from any location — with real photos and stolen information
Petrunina says VPNs (virtual private networks) pose a particular challenge to scam prevention. They make it nearly impossible to track the location of a user — a key piece of the scam profile puzzle. China, India and the USA top the list of scam hot spots on Pure’s app; 10-15% of users from these countries are fake.
“A scammer can create multiple fake profiles from any location — with real photos and stolen information,” says Petrunina. “This puts users in a vulnerable position quite easily.”
Photo-editing software, phishing scamware and bots — designed to mimic human dating behaviour by producing pre-written scripts and AI-generated responses — have all proven effective tools for cybercriminals too.
More needs to be done to protect online consumers
The 2022 EU Digital Services Act (DSA) could be a game changer for consumers using digital platforms in the EU. It will require companies — in particular, those with more than 45m users — to take greater measures to tighten up their cybersecurity.
It may, however, prove costly for dating platforms; users will get new rights, including the right to seek out-of-court settlement and compensation for breaches of the act. Any company found to not meet online safety standards will receive a fine.
Ben Abdelmalek thinks it’s important for “tech companies to contribute to a safer digital world” and says that “fighting crime is an important investment for all online companies – including smaller ones”.
Pure and other platforms will still have to rely on their own internal systems
But she says the EU could level the playing field by providing financial resources to startups and scaleups looking to follow digital best practices.
Petrunina is not as convinced by the DSA. She says the onus is on the platforms to prevent financial crimes because so little is being done by law enforcement.
Tighter regulation is needed to plug the gaps across the “fraud chain”, she says. Internet scams are famously difficult to tackle through law enforcement because reprimanding criminals requires cross-border jurisdiction and collective intelligence gathering.
“Pure and other platforms will still have to rely on their own internal systems,” Petrunina says. “Which have — and will likely always have — their fair share of limitations.”
Wise confirmed it is working with Aalia to investigate her case after Sifted contacted the company.