BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – The internet has changed the way we do a lot of things, from keeping in touch with family and friends, work, to finding love.

We spend an average of SEVEN hours online everyday, and it’s fair to say that we live and breathe the internet.

While online dating and social media sites have become increasingly popular tools to find love and friendship, they’ve unfortunately also become popular tools for fraudsters known as romance scammers.

These con artists create fake profiles to lure in victims, establish romantic relationships and eventually, extort money.

While there is limited data available on the type of scams affecting Bruneians (as well as the financial losses incurred), in the US scammers managed to extort $547 million from their victims last year, according to the latest report from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). 

Common romance scams include the use of fake dating profiles to mine your personal information or send malware; coaxing victims to send intimate photos or videos which are then used to blackmail them; and elaborate ruses where scammers get to know you well enough to ask for help with money and expenses. 

Look out for the red flags

The FTC reported that Instagram and Facebook were the most commonly reported platforms where contact with a scammer begins.

They often pose as someone living abroad and working in a respected and recognised role such as pilots, soldiers or medical professionals. 

Cyber Security Brunei, a national agency that monitors online security threats, said there are several common warning signs that a person’s online profile could be fake, such as: 

1. Their profile looks too good to be true, and all their photos look professionally taken.

2. They claim to live far away and make promises to meet in person but always cancel at the last minute.

3. The relationship progresses very quickly. The intention is to establish trust and relationship as quickly as possible. Some may even propose marriage.

4. They avoid video calls with you, or claim their internet connection is the cause of the bad video quality.

5. They ask you for money, and they are very specific about the payment methods. Never send money or gifts to a romantic interest you have not met in person.

Remember, if it looks fishy, or seems too good to be true, then it probably is.

Beware of fake crypto investments!

Data from the FTC shows that both romance fraud has grown by a whopping 70% during the pandemic, as it provided a convenient excuse for scammers to say they aren’t able to meet in person.

Last year also saw scammers increasingly using romance as a hook to lure people into bogus investments, particularly those involving cryptocurrency.

After romancing a potential target, the scammers often make a victim believe they are successful investors and casually offer investment advice for fake opportunities that often involve foreign-exchange trading or cryptocurrency.

So how can we protect ourselves?

Scammers preying on your emotions and desire for connection can sometimes make us ignore red flags. But here are some things you should always take heed of when interacting with other people online: 

1. Pay attention to what personal information you share online. Oversharing personal details or emotional posts on social media can make you a target for scams, trolling, identity theft, and online harassment.

2. Refrain from exposing your location in real-time. Your location-sharing can be used for spying, stalking or theft.

3. Click with caution. Links could lead to installing malware on your device, or to a phishing website which is designed to trick you into submitting personal or financial information.

4. Cover your webcam when it’s not in use. With the use of malware, cyber criminals are able to turn on a device’s camera without the user’s knowledge, capturing images or videos to extort money.

5. Refrain from sending compromising photos or videos of yourself, even if you trust that person.

6. Always be suspicious when someone you don’t know contacts you to request personal or financial information.

7. Protect your online accounts with a strong password or passphrase, and enable multi-factor authentication (MFA) if it is available. This helps ensure that nobody else can access your account even if your password is compromised. At the very least, your most important accounts such as email, banking, and social media should always have MFA enabled.

8. Cross-check and verify by talking to someone you trust, before trusting the stranger. Pay attention if your friends or family say they are concerned about your new love interest.

9. Do your own snooping. Google the person and their job online. Do a reverse image search for profile photos. Search and read blog posts about romance scams.

If you suspect that you are involved in a romance scam, pull the plug and stop communication with the person immediately.

How to report a scam

The pandemic has been an isolating and vulnerable time for many, and scammers have definitely taken advantage of that.

If you are the victim of romance fraud, don’t feel ashamed – the desire to seek out love and connection is a completely human need.

What you should do is file a report with the police, your financial institution and BruCert or Cyber Security Brunei so that the authorities become more aware of how the public is being targeted. 

While you may not be able to recoup your losses, your story can help other people from getting scammed.