There’s no doubt about it, the pandemic has been a lonely experience for many people around the world. It’s little wonder then that an increasing number of people have turned to online dating services to make connections — and potentially form lasting romantic bonds.
Popular dating apps rose to the challenge too, some even started offering free features that are normally charged at an additional cost. Tinder, for example, offered daters the chance to “travel” around the world with a free of charge premium subscription.
On the surface of it, this seems like a generous gesture, a nod to solidarity in trying times. But unfortunately, like so many sectors, the world of virtual dating has been infiltrated by threat actors (to borrow a term from cybersecurity parlance) who are intent on profiteering from the current COVID-19 crisis.
And when it comes to attacks with a socially engineered element, it is hard to think of a better place to capitalize on human emotions than the online dating world. With little chance to meet in person owing to social distancing measures, scammers are provided an additional layer of cover.
As reported by The Verge, US$201 million dollars was lost to romance scams in 2019. No figures are reported yet for 2023, but it’s safe to assume that the losses will be greater in line with threat actors’ increased potential for financial gain during the pandemic. Lonely people are prime targets, after all.
Romance or love scams aren’t the only threat either. Cybercriminals may also target data or personally identifiable information that can then be sold for a profit, or solicit explicit images or videos which are then used to extort victims in a practice known as sextortion.
Sextortion is a particularly heinous threat as there are often multiple victims involved. For example, a male scammer may pose as a woman online then set up a video call between a woman they have coerced or intimidated into the situation and a male victim. Once the call has taken place and assuming the male victim has engaged in cybersex, the video is used as leverage for financial gain.
Frequently, sextortion scams target men who are married and potentially have families. In a bid to avoid breaking up the family or bringing embarrassment upon themselves, the men pay the ransom. In some dire cases in the United Kingdom, male victims have taken their own lives when unable to pay the large bounty requested.
In addition to the threats above, a full-suite of standard non-context specific threats run through the dating world too. Things such as malware sent through messages, fraudulent apps, and hijacked accounts are as common to digital dating as they are any other sector.
With the above in mind, it certainly pays to be cautious online and to take care of one’s data and self.
Here are some recommended strategies for safety and security when engaging in virtual dating.
Top Tips for Staying Safe Online
1. Don’t trust people blindly
Scammers will go to elaborate and often lengthy measures to carry out romance scams. They may talk to their victims for months before asking for financial assistance and/or offering up an opportune business deal.
Most professional fraudsters know that a well-crafted digital footprint is important. Their false persona will be backed by a Facebook page, Instagram account, and a LinkedIn profile. Of course, the accounts are all part of the catfishing ruse. Con artists may also work in teams, perhaps encouraging a victim to talk to their “mother” or “sister” in a bid to build trust.
But the very nature of online discourse and digital selves means that all the factors that add up to a person’s digital existence can be created with no basis in reality. Love is a powerful emotion that causes people to throw caution to the wind and trust someone they don’t know in person, instead believing that the information they see online is valid and true. And it’s that blind trust that causes both heartache and financial ruin.
2. Don’t strip in front of web cameras or send nudes
While being offered some participatory cyber relations during a long, lonely lockdown sounds like a pleasant way to while away a few hours, it is rife with risk. Sextortion scams can be financially ruinous, and, as explained above, can cost a lot more than money.
The best advice here is to never send nude images or recordings to a stranger. Avoid video calls with people you do not know well as the other participant may record you without your knowledge or consent.
Cyber play is all well and good when there is trust involved. But as covered above, trust is best reserved for people one actually knows.
3. Shield your online activity from prying eyes
While there might be distinctions to be made between scammers and hackers, there is definitely an element of cross-over here, particularly when it comes to the online dating world. For example, in 2018 hackers took control of a female service person’s account. The woman was a member of the British Royal Air Force (RAF) and the threat actor used her account to reach out to another RAF member and glean details of the F-35 stealth fighter.
While your account might not be of interest to state-sponsored hackers, there’s still a chance it is of interest to people who hack individuals. For that reason, it pays to shield your online activity from prying eyes.
Using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) while you date online and chat to strangers provides you with two key benefits: you can hide your true IP address, and by extension, your real geographic location, and any data you send is encrypted. The benefits of this are obvious. To learn more about how VPNs work, click here.
In addition to using a VPN, use a Google Voice Number to talk to new love interests on the phone, not your real phone number. Both these measures provide an essential layer on anonymity that bodes well for personal safety and digital security.