Many of us grew up with Hollywood-style dreams of how we might meet our partner – whether that be a chance encounter in a bar, on a long plane journey, or fighting over the last apple in the supermarket. In reality, however, more of us are turning to the internet to find love, a hookup – and everything in between. So much so that global dating website eharmony predicts that by 2037 the majority of babies in the UK will be born to parents who met online.
Lockdown supercharged the shift to online dating. In March 2020, Tinder broke its record for the highest number of swipes in a single day: 3 billion, while the global number of dating app users surpassed 300 million for the first time in 2021. For many people across the world, being stuck at home was a hugely lonely time. Connecting online and sharing a glass of wine over FaceTime became not only the most viable and safe option for finding love and companionship, but it was also reported to be a ‘lifeline’ for 64% of those living alone. And e-dating looks set to stay, with 69% of UK Hinge users saying they’ll continue with virtual dates after the pandemic.
However, every rose has its thorn and the success of online dating has been coupled with a more sinister trend. In 2021, reports of romance fraud increased 40%, and dating fraudsters stole over £92m from their victims in the UK – a likely underestimation of financial losses considering the National Crime Agency estimates that less than 1 in 5 instances of fraud are reported. Both the financial and emotional cost of these crimes has been brought into popular consciousness by recent media releases, notably Netflix’s latest hit documentary, the Tinder Swindler.
But what is romance fraud, and what does it have to do with behavioural science?
What is romance fraud?
Romance fraud is an online scam where a fraudster will engineer and develop a relationship with their victim, ‘grooming’ them with the aim of stealing money or personal information.
These scams appear to follow a fairly consistent pattern of events. Using carefully curated cover stories and profiles, fraudsters attempt to build rapid, intense relationships by feigning shared interests, such as religious or spiritual faiths, whilst avoiding giving away too much personal information about themselves. Once a relationship has been initiated, they quickly move the conversation onto less regulated, encrypted platforms – such as text or WhatsApp.
Fraudsters then exploit a number of psychological ploys to coerce their victim into giving them money, such as:
|Foot-in-the-door technique: When we undertake a small behaviour, we become more likely to comply with larger and more costly requests. Fraudsters begin by ‘testing the water’ – asking for small gifts and monetary payments – which gradually escalate.
|Invoking ‘hot’ states: Fraudsters use urgency in their stories and explanations to invoke ‘hot states’ in their victims – such as desperately needing money for a medical procedure or to keep a business afloat. By invoking stress, fear and sadness, victims – who believe they are in a genuine relationship – are led to make snap, risky choices.
|Reciprocity: Fraudsters invest significant amounts of time into forming a ‘genuine’ emotional attachment with the victim, using techniques such as disclosing meaningful personal information early on to create an intense bond quickly, which they then exploit to make it extremely hard to say no to their requests. Phrases such as “You know I’d do anything to help you if it was the other way around” elicit guilt and a sense of duty in the victim.
Once the fraudster has exploited as much as they can from the victim, they simply disappear by deleting their profiles, unregistering numbers and effectively vanishing off the face of the earth. Victims are then made to feel a sense of self blame and shame for having fallen for and spent weeks, months, or even years, confiding in the fraudster. Unlike other types of fraud, they experience a ‘double hit’: not only a financial loss, but also the loss of a relationship, often comparable to bereavement.
What can be done?
Romance fraud is a complex crime that relies on the use of deceitful and persuasive psychological tactics. Fraudsters are extremely adept at adapting their techniques to the shifting environment around them. While there is no single, easy solution to prevent it from occurring, behavioural science can offer avenues to reduce the prevalence and harm of romance fraud.
1. Help users spot malicious profiles
In many romance fraud cases, victims report having had a feeling that ‘something seemed off’ during the course of their relationship, but that they explained it away. Introducing a point of reflection at times when the victim is likely to be receptive, and in a ‘cold’ state, may help them come to the realisation that something isn’t right.
A promising route could therefore be to prompt users with information at the right time to help them spot malicious profiles and intentions. This could be done in a couple of ways:
- Provide users with rules of thumb on how to spot malicious profiles. Embedding rules of thumb campaigns such as the Take Five technique, or Action Fraud’s “Stop, Challenge, Protect” (shown below) into dating apps could prompt users to reflect on whether the profile they are looking at, or person they are speaking to, might not be real. Tips for users should be actionable – such as reverse searching images on Google to see if they appear elsewhere with a different name or information.
- Build-in trigger ‘risk’ points to interactions on dating platforms. Dating platforms hold a wealth of data on their users and interactions, which could be used to improve their safety. For example, platforms could build in a time-based prompt that sends users a pop-up message after they have been speaking for a certain amount of time (e.g. exchanged 50 messages) but have not yet used a video chat function. The pop-up could prompt the users to suggest a video call, and remind them of the possible warning signs for fraud. A step further could be to develop automatic language monitoring tools to trigger pop-ups in responses to certain keywords – for example, if a user requests financial or personal information. This real-time monitoring has huge potential for signalling harmful messages and providing timely responses, prompting users out of their ‘hot’ state.
2. Put the responsibility on industry to make dating websites safer
There are a number of policies that platforms could put in place to increase safety for their users. For example, introducing stricter sign-up requirements by default – such as visual ID verifications – would likely reduce the prevalence of fraudulent profiles. The development and implementation of algorithms that check profile content (e.g. images uploaded) against other open sources could also help to flag potentially fraudulent profiles with relative ease and ban those profiles (and/or IP addresses) from the platform.
Right now it’s very hard for a user to discern which dating platforms are doing this well, and which are letting them down. We need greater transparency about the actions dating platforms are taking. Regulators should be willing to specifically call out platforms for poor policies and behaviours.
Further, Which?, the CMA or even one of the leading national newspapers could publish accessible league tables ranking dating platforms based on their performance on data privacy, verification rates, the percentage of fake profiles, and reported fraud. This in turn would lead to greater pressure from users as they vote with their feet – abandoning platforms that mishandle their data or leave them more vulnerable to fraud, and signing up to those that are prioritising their interests and safety.
3. Make reporting easier for victims
Finally, a major barrier to the identification, prevention and prosecution of fraud is low rates of reporting. Given the intimate nature of the crime, many victims find themselves too upset or embarrassed to report the crime. In many cases, fraudsters will ensure the victim has become isolated from friends and family over time, which means they are often without any kind of support network once the relationship ends.
It is therefore crucial to make it as easy as possible to report romance fraud, by removing any frictions to reporting. Normalising the reporting of romance crime by highlighting that it can happen to anyone, and featuring testimonies of victims who have been through a similar experience, could help victims come forward and subsequently increase prosecutions.
Finally: we know that media is a huge, untapped resource for changing behaviour, and so we hope the popularity of the Tinder Swindler on Netflix, as well as the podcast series Sweet Bobby, will trigger conversations across society – to help encourage more victims to come forward, and to shift the focus of industry to ensuring safety on their platforms.
If you believe you have been a victim of a romance fraud, please remember that you are not to blame, are not alone, and you should not feel ashamed. Resources, support and advice are available at: www.actionfraud.police.uk
If you are interested in discussing any of these ideas in more detail, or would like to collaborate with BIT to tackle romance fraud, please contact email@example.com.