What's Love Got to Do with It? Exploring Online Dating Scams and Identity Fraud

By Rege, Aunshul | International Journal of Cyber Criminology, July-December 2009 | Go to article overview

What's Love Got to Do with It? Exploring Online Dating Scams and Identity Fraud


Rege, Aunshul, International Journal of Cyber Criminology


Introduction

The rapid development of information and communication technologies (ICTs) and the prevalence of the internet offer an alternative venue for romantic endeavors. Internet daters experience excitement when they interact with other people through new, digital mediums. Four factors make online dating attractive to customers. First, individuals do not have to leave their homes or workplaces to date. Matchmaking sites are open for business 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, allowing daters to remotely scan profiles at their convenience. Second, the anonymity feature of the internet allows individuals to participate privately in dating without the oversight of others or the fear of stigma. Third, interactive online dating allows customers to experience new forms interaction, such as live chats, instant messaging, flirtatious emoticons, nudges, and winks (Fiore & Donath, 2004; Wang & Lu, 2007). Fourth, online dating sites serve up 'perfect matches' quickly. By using advanced search engines, 'scientific' matching services, and proprietary algorithms, dating sites instantly find compatible matches based on values, personality styles, attitudes, interests, race, religion, gender, and ZIP codes (Mitchell, 2009). These digital environments of anonymity and flexibility allow daters to test pluralistic ways of being that are instantaneous, alterable, and open to interpretation, making online dating attractive and stimulating to customers (Hitsch et al., 2005; Wang & Lu, 2007).

Not surprisingly, these qualities have resulted in the proliferation of the online dating sector since the mid-1990s, so much so that there are approximately 1,400 dating sites in North America today, such as Match.com, eHarmony.com, Chemistry.com, and Lavalife.com to name a few (Close & Zinkhan, 2004; Scott, 2009). US daters spent approximately $245 million on online personals and dating services in the first half of 2005 (OPA 2005). The online dating industry generated revenues of $957 million in 2008, making it the fourth highest grossing internet industry after online gambling, digital music, and video games (Epps et al., 2008; McMullan & Rege, 2009; Mitchell, 2009). In fact, the online dating sector is anticipated to generate $1.049 billion in 2009 and is expected to grow at a rate of 10% annually, with projected revenue of $1.9 billion by 2012 (Mitchell, 2009). This successful industry, however, is plagued by cyber crimes, such as romance scams and identity fraud. According to the National Consumers League (NCL), the average victim of a 'sweetheart swindle' lost more than $3,000 in 2007 (NCL 2008; BBC 2007). The Internet Crime Complaint Centre's (IC3) 2007 Internet Crime Report found that online dating fraud was one of the most commonly reported complaints in the everrising internet fraud claims (IC3 2007; Mitchell, 2009). Reliable victimization statistics, however, do not exist for several reasons. As King and Thomas (2009) note, romance scams are international in scope and no centralized database tracking victims and their losses is currently available. Furthermore, law enforcement bodies only receive a fraction of all scam complaints, either because victims are embarrassed after being duped, or because they do not realize that they have been swindled (King & Thomas, 2009). While the estimates of victimization are rough at best, online daters are prime targets of romance scams and identity fraud, and thereby warrant special attention.

In the context of this paper, cyber crime is defined as any crime (i) where ICTs may be the agent/perpetrator, the facilitator/instrument, or the victim/target of the crime and (ii) which may either be a single event or an on-going series of events (Rege-Patwardhan, 2009; Symantec 2007). This definition encompasses both the duration of the crime as well as the roles (perpetrator, facilitator, and victim) of ICTs in cyber crimes. Cyber criminals are offenders who (i) are driven by a range of motivations, such as thrill, revenge, and profit, (ii) commit and/or facilitate cyber crimes, (iii) work alone, in simple partnerships, or in more formalized settings, and (iv) have varying levels of technical expertise (Rege- Patwardhan, 2009; Rogers, 2005; Wall, 2007). …

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