Lost my heart to a deepfake: Dump your fraudster this Valentine’s

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Lost my heart to a deepfake: Dump your fraudster this Valentine’s


This content is contributed or sourced from third parties but has been subject to Finextra editorial review.

Shadows are creeping up from the depths of the dark web, ensnaring lonely hearts at their lowest by using loving words and falsified images to sink their claws into their bank accounts, emptying their funds and leaving them heartbroken and penniless. Romance fraud has become a common form of gaining the trust of a victim to financially exploit them.

As the general public is getting all loved up for Valentine’s day this week, it is a good time to keep in mind that there is a higher risk of getting caught in a romance scam as cybercriminal techniques have evolved with new technologies. With the increased usage of AI and deepfakes, lovers are at their most vulnerable this February.

Romance fraud is on the rise

The National Fraud Intelligence Bureau reported losses of £92.3 million from October 2022 to 2023 due to romance fraud, and that they had received 8,036 reports of romance-related scams.

In 2023, a a man was found guilty of scamming Americans through romance, using a cryptocurrency exchange to cover the movement of Bitcoin funds to co-conspirators in Nigeria. The criminals defrauded victims of over $2.3 million dollars in criminal proceeds and earned hundreds of thousands in fees.

A report by Lloyds Bank found that romance scams rose by 22% in 2023, with an average of £6,937 stolen, which was less than that in 2022 (£8,237). In 2022, the largest losses in romance fraud was via cryptocurrency or bank transfers, but many reported that they paid their scammer using gift cards.

Kate Frankish from Pay.UK, she states that loneliness makes anyone vulnerable to romance scams and online dating opens up more opportunities for fraudsters to scout targets.

Bala Kumar, CPO of Jumio  adds: “Coercive control is at the very centre of [romance scams], and whatever story the fraudster concocts, including the ones pretending to be celebrities using deepfake technology, it will suddenly end with them urgently needing money.”

The age group that is more often  a victim of  romance scams are men and women aged between 55 and 64, with those between 65 and 74 losing the most money at an average of £13,123.

A study by Javelin reported that males are significantly more likely (73%) to be victims of romance scams than women (27%). Lloyds informed that in 2023, men made up 52% of romance fraud cases, however on average women reported higher losses of funds compared to men.

UK Finance stated an increase in authorised push payment (APP) fraud, which is commonly used my romance scammers by deceiving targets via email, text, or phone to transfer funds directly from account to account. The study found that £18.5 million was lost to romance fraud in the first half of 2023, an increase of 26% during the same period in 2022.

In 2023, the FTC released a graph depicting romance scammers’ ‘favorite lies’ as seen below.

Deepfakes and AI is the fraudster’s wingman

Deepfake technology can make phone calls seem realistic and are being used more frequently in romance scams; a victim was robbed of £350,000 by a criminal using deepfakes, whom she believed she was in a two year relationship with.

Kumar comments on the rising use of AI and deepfake technology in romance fraud: “The honeytrap attack technique is among the most common, which involves a criminal befriending the victim by creating a fake profile and artificial persona. Now, with new AI tools on the dark web, such as ‘FraudGPT’, scams are becoming easier to create and even harder to detect.

“Other emerging tactics include the rise of deepfakes. Deepfakes are the new wingman to romance scammers — helping fraudsters generate artificial videos or images that closely resemble real people, using faces generated by AI or real human faces. With AI voice cloning, fraudsters can generate convincing voice calls that correlate with the fake profiles they’ve created, making it even easier to fool their victims.”

Source: Jumio

Kumar explains that users often overestimate their ability to discern whether an image or video is AI-generated, as good-quality deepfakes have become more prevalent. Additionally, voice cloning technologies and ability to translate and control accents in audio bytes makes deepfakes even more convincing for an unsuspecting lonely heart.

Deepfakes are now such a widespread issue that there is a Federal Bill being posed in US Congress to combat the spread of false images and videos after explicit generated images of Taylor Swift were shared on X, called the Disrupt Explicit Forged Images and Non-Consensual Edits Act of 2024, or the Defiance Act.

Love has a new name and its ‘pig-butchering’ scam

Cryptocurrency fraud has become more prevalent in the sha zhu pan (杀猪盘) or ‘pig butchering’ scam pattern, that has been utilised by organised crime gangs in China. These pig-butchering fraudsters run romance and insurance scams that engage targets in fabricated relationships over text or call, and convince them to share personal details or download illegal apps that can funnel funds into their grasp.

These pig-butchering rings have a front office that includes a manager and the face of the scam, which covers the back office that includes money laundering, an IT team, and crypto wallets that contain the laundered funds. The persona used to bait victims into the scam is often fabricated, stolen, or created using generative AI.

Principal threat researcher at cybersecurity firm Sophos, Sean Gallagher stated that pic-butchering scams first arose during the pandemic, but there have been innovations in the technology since: “Now, as the scams have become more successful and the fraudsters have refined their techniques, we’re seeing a similar evolution to what we’ve seen with ransomware and other types of cybercrime in the past: the creation of an as-a-service model.

“Pig butchering rings are creating ready-made DeFi app kits, which other cybercriminals can purchase on the dark web. As a result, new pig butchering rings that are unaffiliated with Chinese organised crime groups are appearing in areas like Thailand, West Africa and even the U.S. As with other types of commercialised cybercrime, these kits lower the entry barriers for cybercriminals interested in pig butchering and vastly expand the victim pool. Last year, pig butchering was already a multi-billion-dollar fraud phenomenon; sadly, the problem is likely only to grow exponentially this year.”

Online dating and social media is where fraudsters most commonly lurk, but there are also frequent cases of wrong-number text scams in which the scammer ‘accidentally’ texts the victim, then looping them into a conversation that feels like a twist of faith (but isn’t). Another new way to lure targets is posing as dating apps asking users to verify their profiles, only to gain information and images from the victim. Kumar states that online dating has made it easier for scammers to form online accounts and personas, as they are simply easier to fake.

Kumar describes “romance scam universities” where conners pay to learn scamming strategies. “In fact, the problem is so rampant that dating platforms are reporting that fraudsters are often talking to other fraudsters until they eventually find out about each other.”

Common forms of seducing a victim into a sense of security is to pose as a person on military deployment, which explains the inability to meet in real life or video chat.

Silvija Krupena, director of the financial intelligence unit at RedCompass Labs adds that pig-butchering scams often start off with a simple message over social media and escalates rapidly to a point when the victim is coerced into sending large sums of money to a third party for the sake of their fake relationship.

Krupena states: “What makes these scams so terrible is the fact that criminal organisations are often exploiting human trafficking victims to do the scamming in ‘fraud farms’ in Asia.  To tackle this, we need to focus on education first and foremost. Anyone can get scammed, it’s only a matter of scammers using the right script.”

How do you know if a fraudster’s captured your heart?

The psychological manipulation of romance scams leads to mental harm on the victims, causing people to lose their sense of trust and confidence.

Frankish points out that signs that you may be a victim of a romance scam is if an online love interest attempts to form a deep bond quickly by asking lots of personal questions and sharing personal stories early on in the relationship, always comes up with excuses for not being able to meet in person or video call, and asks for help financially in an urgent fashion without giving you time to contemplate.

Kumar adds: “Romance scammers can be challenging to catch as they typically operate very craftily within the first two months of their relationship with a user. Romance scammers will often try to get their targets off the dating or social media platform as quickly as possible to a more discreet messaging application, such as WhatsApp or Telegram.”

UK Finance advises that users be wary of texts or calls stating they are banks or police to transfer funds, not to provide any unknown users who have contacted you online to your personal information and laptop, and to forward any suspicious emails to report@phishing.gov.uk.

What are financial institutions doing to combat romance fraud?

Commenting on what financial institutions can do to combat romance scammers, Frankish states: “Financial Institutions (FIs) can invest in better fraud detection solutions which  use advanced AI to detect scams which are specific to romance fraud. These tools learn the behavioural and biometric characteristics of a romance scammer, including their payment and digital/online behaviours.”

Kumar states: “The Payment Systems Regulator’s new mandatory reimbursement law, which requires banks to reimburse victims of APP fraud themselves, demonstrates the scale of the present challenge, and the need for banks to do more to combat these romance scams. Financial institutions must have systems capable of spotting the warning signs of fraud before it’s too late. This means ensuring they know their customers are who they say they are, educating customers on the dangers of online fraud and empowering them to protect themselves.”

Kumar adds that identity verification is key to prevent fraud and ensuring that users are transferring funds for a clear purpose and to reliable accounts.

Research from Brigham Young University indicates that acknowledging financial health and maintaining healthy financial management in ties in with sexual satisfaction and happiness within relationships. Financial wellbeing is attractive, it turns out! Which is further incentive to be more mindful when forming online relationships and managing your funds.

In order to prevent romance scams from becoming of higher risk to society, financial institutions should raise further awareness for the length scammers are willing to go to secure funds from victims. Stay safe this Valentines!


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This content is contributed or sourced from third parties but has been subject to Finextra editorial review.