When Love Hurts

Online Dating Scams Are on the Rise with Criminals Using New Catfishing Techniques, Including Deepfakes, to Deceive and Defraud.

Photo: Iwona Wawro

It has never been easy to find a mate. It’s especially difficult for those with a laundry list of wants and requirements: in educational attainment, professional success, gregariousness, attractiveness and physical endowment, you know, the more superficial trappings that don’t foster real connection. And the pandemic hasn’t made this any easier. But there’s a trend that is making your search for your one true love even harder and can hit you where you could feel it the most—in your wallet.

What if the person you have been talking to and getting to know is not who they say they are? Or what if they’re not even a real person? Now imagine being put out of money as a victim in either scenario and that your favorite dating app could be involved in the heist.

Cyber security experts have been ringing the alarm bells on this growing trend. Some may remember a warning sent out to Grindr users in Ireland who were being targeted by scammers pretending to be victims of homophobic attacks. Called romance or confidence scams, over 30,000 Americans were defrauded of a total sum of $304 million in 2020, a 50% increase over 2019 figures. Because of lockdown guidelines during the pandemic, dating apps have seen record subscriptions for those eager to make love connections at a time when we are forced to be apart. But the massive influx also gave scammers a larger than normal pool of people to target. The median amount of money victims have lost is $2,500, which is 10 times greater than that of any other type of fraud.

You would also think that this kind of activity only affects singles who are older, lonely and more susceptible, but the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) data shows people of all ages have been targets with the biggest increase among those 20-29 years of age. Forty to 69-year olds were the most likely to be defrauded overall and those 70 and up lost the most with an average loss of $9,475.

Scammers have infiltrated online dating apps and other platforms, like Facebook and Instagram, to lure and charm unsuspecting victims. Combing through over 200 reports of romance crimes via the Better Business Bureau’s Scam Tracker database, the story is almost always the same: the scammer uses a fake identity. They establish a connection with the soon-to-be victim, often indicating that they are stationed abroad (military or work) or unable to travel due to obligations or limitations. (This excuse has worked phenomenally during the pandemic because of international travel restrictions.) They often connect via WhatsApp or another messenger service. Within days or weeks, the predators prey upon the soon-to-be victim’s empathy and express financial hardship. They ask their victim to wire money or purchase gift cards or cryptocurrency for a personal or family emergency or a loan for a business deal, which they promise to return. In some cases, the scammer may send money first or reassure the victim by returning the borrowed money, only to make a larger request afterwards, then leaving the victim in the lurch. Others use emotional manipulation.

And some of these “relationships” can even last for years. With the unsuspecting victim already in a vulnerable place emotionally, many have lost their life’s savings and homes. Some even refuse to accept that they have been deceived. Although we can’t substantiate the veracity of the following claims, one 64-year old woman on the BBB Scam Tracker said she lost $875,000. One man said he lost $80,000 from a scammer on Adam4Adam. Another man, over $300 on Grindr. Because of the personal embarrassment, this type of crime goes under reported. Finding people willing to talk publicly about their experience is also challenging.

Catfishing Gets a Face Lift


Photo: Ig Royal

If you’re on dating apps like I am, you see them: profiles of solid tens, with highfalutin job titles and a photographic lifestyle fit for editorial pages. Characteristically low in resolution to hide photo retouching, some of their subjects barely look human. The following are a number of images that have popped up in my Tinder feed recently, despite the fact that the settings of my dating preference are men who are interested in men:


Photo: AI-generated images targeting gay men on Tinder

The women, as buxomed, tressed and curvaceous as they are, besides being an annoyance to the gay men the scammers target indiscriminately, are a lure for those without better judgment or eyesight, since the images look obviously synthetic. The proliferation of deepfake technology is turning run-of-the mill catfishing into what I’m taking the liberty of calling “fish trawling.” More than the work of some idle person who lives in their mother’s basement, resulting in one fish to a hook, this feels like a different kind of subterfuge; like some organized dragnet shit that will snatch up everything in its wake, even destroy the most delicate of corals amongst us. A bit more sophisticated than standard fare catfishing techniques, often these profiles are enabled by artificial intelligence (AI) both photographically and are capable of chatting back with you. Because they leverage technology, vastly more profiles can be created and more people can be duped. Philip Wang, creator of the site ThisPersonDoesNotExist.com developed this image of a woman to show his friends how far the technology had come and to raise awareness about its implication for the future.

Perhaps the most accessible definition of deepfake that I’ve seen in my readings is Andrea Hickerson’s, Director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of South Carolina, who said in a Popular Mechanics article, “At the most basic level, deepfakes are lies disguised to look like truth.” Phil Tully, Data Science Manager at FireEye Mandiant, a cybersecurity firm, offers a more technical explanation:

“Deepfakes represent the newest chapter of digital manipulation in which sophisticated machine learning and artificial intelligence techniques are deployed to generate a significant portion of the media. Colloquially, deepfakes typically refer to videos and images, but audio and text can likewise be synthetically generated towards the same malicious endgoals.”

Said AI techniques are similarly deceptive to the two-part algorithmic logic (generator and discriminator) that comprise it. They are individually trained to fool the other, and it is this adversarial relationship between them that creates a reality that doesn’t exist through a continual jousting towards perfection, as they increase in learning.

Cam G., 23, who requested some anonymity, is a trans man from the Dallas Fort Worth area who was catfished on three occasions, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”

Cam hasn’t lost money more than dining and travel expenses to get to his dates but says he’s often asked for gas money, “I have three instances I can remember at the moment of showing up to the date and immediately leaving because their profile showed almost a completely different human. There has definitely been an increase in fake profiles, especially with so many apps and sites out there. You can usually tell by the lack of info/pics/verifications. I think apps could do a whole lot better job of protecting their users.”

Responsibility and Accountability


Photo: Velishchuk Yevhen

To Cam’s point, as a potential scene of the crime, dating apps and other platforms bear a responsibility to ensure that their users receive fair warning or have some protection from actors of bad faith. Recognizing the missteps of one of the more popular dating apps, in 2019, the FTC sued Match Group, which owns Hinge, Match.com, OKCupid, PlentyOfFish, Tinder, and other dating sites. The FTC alleged that Match.com exposed users to the risk of fraud and engaged in other deceptive and unfair practices. Specifically, Match.com invited hundreds of thousands of users to sign up for subscriptions with misleading love interest advertisements, which implied that a Match.com subscriber was seeking them out. This was a tool often exploited by millions of accounts that Match.com had already flagged as fraudulent. The suit alleged that some 25% – 35% of new Match.com accounts were created by those seeking to conduct romance scams, phishing schemes, fraudulent advertising, and extortion scams.

Additionally, Match.com didn’t fully disclose to the users who signed up that they had to meet specific criteria to guarantee the free six-month trial advertised and then failed to allow the newly initiated to cancel, forcing them to assume the recurring cost.

Of the lawsuit, Andrew Smith, the then Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said in a statement, which the FTC has approved for usage here, “We believe that Match.com conned people into paying for subscriptions via messages the company knew were from scammers. Online dating services obviously shouldn’t be using romance scammers as a way to fatten their bottom line.”

In September 2020, the Department of Justice closed its investigation into the suit, which is stayed in federal court, pending the outcome of another FTC case in the U.S. Supreme Court.

It’s unknown if the case has influenced how dating companies are responding to the increased legal scrutiny and the barrage of romance scams. We reached out to seven of the more popular dating apps queer people use most often: Adam4Adam, Grindr, HER, Lex, Match.com, Taimi and Tinder. Those that responded mostly report a similar approach to detection that includes using AI-based technology, a team of moderators and user reporting, and yet fake profiles with sinister intentions still abound.

Tinder refused to provide specifics about the threat they are facing and how they are handling it in detail, citing concerns over tipping off would-be offenders, but a spokesperson provided the following statement:

“We take the issues of impersonation and scamming very seriously and have a zero-tolerance policy on predatory behavior of any kind. We have a dedicated team that leverages a network of industry leading technology to scan for signs of fraud and reviews suspicious profiles, activity, and user generated reports.”

HER, which is a dating app for lesbians, bisexuals and other queer people raised the lid a bit more on their process, detailing a multi-layered approach to detect and prevent scammers through technology and user reporting, saying:

“We use a number of algorithms to detect behavioral and linguistics patterns that indicate scammer behavior. Users can also report an account as suspicious and it will be added to our review system. We then handle suspicious accounts with appropriate actions to the behavior, ranging from instant suspension to being added to a queue to be manually reviewed by a team member. We have a team that are reviewing profiles that look suspicious, 24hrs a day. We also have a team of over 40 moderators that are reporting accounts that look suspicious inside the app. On the other side (confirming authentic users) we also have a profile verification feature where users submit an image that is manually verified by one of our team members.”

Taimi, a new entrant in the dating and social network space with a user base of 11 million employs similar procedures as HER. They were, however, more forthright than the others with the threat they are facing. So far, no one has reported to them of being defrauded. They saw a 250 percent increase in subscribers during the pandemic. They also saw an increase in fake accounts and a tripling of user complaints that began as early as December 2019. They identify and remove some 10,000 fake profiles every year, but the threat is still pervasive.

“To us, fake accounts pose a significant danger to our users,” said Helen Virt, Head of Business Development at Taimi. “As a product built for LGBTQ+ people, we take safety very seriously. Deepfakes are also quite damaging to the brand as a whole, so it is so important for Taimi to catch fakes during the registration. That is exactly why our support team works tirelessly on catching fake images and suspicious profiles prior to them actually accessing and becoming available on the app.”

While all the dating apps seemingly play whack a mole in dealing with the problem, the onus ultimately falls to the end user who must take their chances deciphering between potential mates and fake profiles, some of whom pass the dating apps’ sophisticated verification measures. This, of course, doesn’t alleviate the frustration of folks like Cam G. who have to contend with a world of blurred lines between what is real and deception, “Honestly I’ve given up on online dating. It’s too much hassle to try and weed out the fakes.”

How to Spot a Deepfake

Phil Tully, Data Science Manager, FireEye Mandiant: Deepfake images can display markers of inauthenticity that often clue us into the images being artificially generated, including:

  • The common format of a closely cropped headshot with a blurred background.
  • Anomalies around the ears and neck.
  • Difficulties with fully rendering glasses.
  • Phantom hair strings being generated outside a credible area.
  • Abnormalities with rendering of earrings, shoulders, teeth and the neck.

How to Protect Yourself From Romance Scams

  • Be careful of the information you share publicly online, as scammers can use it to ingratiate themselves and target you.

  • Refrain from sending money to anyone you meet online, especially if you’ve not met them in person and even if they have sent you money first.

  • Speak with your friends and family to get their perspective and an unbiased opinion about any requests for money. Don’t allow someone you meet online to isolate you from those who know you best.

  • Consistency is key. Look out for erratic answers. And take your time to ask questions and get to know the person.

  • A key indication that you might be being scammed is if the individual habitually makes excuses for why they can’t meet in person after a few months, or promises to meet and then continually cancels.

  • Google can be your best friend. Do a reverse image search to see if the picture of your very fine suitor has gone by other names or has been involved in any scams. Social Catfish offers verification services to identify someone, using an image, an online profile, an email address, or a phone number.

  • Visit the FTC’s and FBI’s dedicated pages for more information.


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