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Online Romance Scams Grow More Sophisticated With Deepfakes, Advanced Tech

In this era of connectivity, where virtual encounters often precede physical ones, online relationships have become a breeding ground for exploitation, with fraudsters capitalizing on the vulnerabilities of hopeful hearts for financial gain. 

This darker side of romance manifests in the rising tide of online romance scams, also known as confidence scams. In these schemes, perpetrators create fake identities, skillfully gain the victim’s affection and trust over a period of time and then drain their bank accounts by requesting various sums of money.

And while the simplicity of these cases made it much easier to detect suspicious activities in the past, these schemes have evolved into far more sophisticated and convincing scams with new advancements in technology.

For instance, digital tools like artificial intelligence (AI) deepfake images have enabled fraudsters to impersonate individuals with remarkable accuracy, making it increasingly challenging for even the most digitally savvy individuals to see through, Kate Frankish, chief business development officer and anti-fraud lead at Pay.UK, told PYMNTS in an interview. 

“The more sophisticated these types of frauds get, the more difficult it is for even the savviest person to understand that actually, this doesn’t feel right. It’s not real,” Frankish said, adding that the lines between reality and deception continue to blur, leaving victims increasingly vulnerable to manipulation. 

According to the latest data from the U.K.’s National Fraud Intelligence Bureau (NFIB) cited by the City of London Police in an Oct. 2 press release, Britons lost over £92 million (about $113 million) in romance scams in 2022, with an average loss of £11,500 (about $14,000) per victim. 

“Fraudsters continue to use a range of tools and techniques to systematically groom, isolate and manipulate victims to ultimately exploit them for financial gain. They use fake personas, sites and companies, fabricated narratives and false documents to bolster those narratives,” the statement said. 

The cost of fake love is equally high in the U.S., where the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) registered 19,000 complaints related to confidence and romance scams in 2022, amounting to reported losses totaling at least $739 million.

The FBI highlighted a notable pattern in a Feb. 12 post on its website, indicating that perpetrators, primarily male, target women over 40 who are divorced, widowed, elderly or disabled. 

The agency used this observation as a timely reminder for individuals to maintain vigilance, especially as Valentine’s Day approaches, cautioning against engaging in online relationships with individuals they have not met in person.

Banks Get Involved

As online romance scams surge, banks and financial institutions (FIs) have stepped in to help protect victims.

Santander UK, for instance, ran a campaign called “Love Hurts” in November of last year to spread awareness about romance scamming and the tactics cybercriminals use to lure victims.

In the “How to spot and avoid a romance scam” section of the post, the FI asked individuals to look out for “spectacular photos” which might have been stolen from another profile or created using AI: “Be wary of photos from someone you don’t know, especially if they look too touched up or like they were taken by a professional.”

In the U.S., banks are reaching out to the federal government, law enforcement agencies, and the social media sector for assistance in curbing the growing crisis that leaves Americans with billions of dollars in losses each year, CNBC reported on Tuesday (Feb. 13).

“We really need help,” Paul Benda, the executive vice president for risk, fraud and cybersecurity at the American Bankers Association, said, per the CNBC report

Benda added: “We need the social media companies to shut down these people that are putting these out there. We need law enforcement engaged to try and prosecute some of these folks. Unless you put a bad guy behind bars, that guy is [going to] keep doing what he’s doing.”

In sum, as the world prepares to exchange tokens of affection this Valentine’s Day, the resounding message rings clear: Remain vigilant and well-informed to shield both pockets and hearts from the draining toll of unnecessary heartbreak.

As Santander UK aptly put it in its campaign video, “While most of us yearn for romance, we must be wary of those with different agendas.”