Rise of online romance scams: When gullible victims fall prey to imposters

“The victims are usually middle-aged men and women from upper middle-class families who are well-educated and have access to technology,” say police.
Rise of online romance scams: When gullible victims fall prey to imposters
Rise of online romance scams: When gullible victims fall prey to imposters
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Recently, the Bengaluru police arrested Sagar Rao, a 25-year-old graduate, for posing as a woman on a dating website and luring his victims into transferring money on promises of going on dates with them. The accused managed to swindle two men out of Rs 71,000 and Rs 10,000 before he was caught by the police.

This is one of the two cases of dating fraud reported in Bengaluru in the month of April alone, that too just three days apart.

In the other case, a 35-year-old businessman was cheated of Rs 60 lakh by a woman whom he had befriended on a dating website in July 2017. The woman sought financial help for the treatment of her father who she claimed was admitted in the BM Birla Heart Research Centre. After transferring Rs 30,000 to her account initially, he made two subsequent transfers of Rs 19 lakh and Rs 40.7 lakh to two other accounts. However, once the transactions were completed, the accused stopped answering all calls.

Romance frauds have existed since days of yore. We are all familiar with stories of deceit and treachery involving men and women who pose as wealthy individuals promising love, and even marriage, to gullible victims only to disappear once they have financially and/or sexually exploited them. But what makes it important to talk about it now is the new vicious form that this type of fraud has taken in the country – through online platforms. The alarming number of such cases reported lately reflects the enormity of the problem.

“We come across such cases quite frequently these days. While earlier it used to happen offline, now it takes place in the virtual world,” says MD Sharath, Deputy Superintendent of Police, Cyber Crime, CBI, Karnataka.

Following the instant popularity of international dating app, Tinder, in India, a number of homegrown dating websites and mobile applications have taken the market by storm. Sensing the changing lifestyles and choices of millennials in the country, several international competitors too have also launched themselves in the Indian market recently. But cashing in on the growing popularity of these websites are fraudsters who prey on innocent victims seeking love and companionship on these platforms.

“The victims are usually middle-aged men and women from upper-middle-class families who are well-educated and have access to technology. Divorcees and individuals experiencing some kind of emptiness and loneliness who turn to these websites in search of a partner fall prey to these scams,” says Sachin P Ghorpade, Superintendent of Police, Cyber Crime Division, CID, Karnataka.

Same modus operandi

The pattern observed in these cases is inevitably the same. Once the scamster makes contact with the ‘target’ on one of these platforms, the acquaintance is taken forward on other social media platforms, such as Facebook, where fake accounts have been created to match their dating profiles. Having gained the trust of the target, the scamster demands money under the pretext of paying medical bills of a sick parent or on promises of marriage or future dates. But soon after the transactions are made, the impostor disappears and becomes untraceable.

“In such cases we try to trace the IP address of the fraudster’s device. If it is within India identification is easier, but in cases where the IP address is from outside the country, it becomes very difficult to trace the criminal. Also in most cases the fraudsters are very smart, they use various methods to mask their IP address to make it untraceable,” says SP Sachin.

“The anonymity offered by the internet is exploited by these criminals. The person you are talking to can be an 80-year-old man or a 15-year-old girl. So people using such websites have to be careful. It is advisable to meet the person and verify his/her identity before establishing any kind of relationship or making any monetary transaction,” explains Sachin.

Matrimonial website scams

However, these fraudsters are not limited to just dating websites. The menace is much more rampant and older on matrimonial websites.

Sadath Khan was nabbed by the police in June last year for allegedly cheating over hundred women in Bengaluru and other parts of Karnataka through matrimonial websites. He would target lonely and divorced women on these sites and promise to marry them. Having gained their trust, Sadath would borrow large sums of money and disappear thereafter.

Similar cases of fraud have been reported in all parts of the country. In January, a woman in Tamil Nadu allegedly conned five men on a matrimonial website and swindled an amount of Rs 1.2 crore from them. In another instance, a man from the state, pretending to be a rich entrepreneur, deceived seven women into marrying him. Again, the accused had gotten in touch with his victims through matrimonial websites.

Sections 66 and 67 of the Information Technology Act pertain to crimes such as cheating by impersonation and other offences related to cybercrime.

Sachin explains that in such frauds bank transactions mostly happen through money mules, which makes it difficult to identify the perpetrators. “Opening a fake account is easy now. For the benefit of the masses, banks have made the procedure to open an account simpler and hassle-free. But fraudsters make use of loopholes in the system to cheat and open fake accounts. How many times do you bother to strike off the copy of your ID proof that you submit while checking into a hotel or while obtaining a mobile connection? RBI and other authorities have been informed about this and we are working towards formulating a solution.”

Sachin believes that if you are a user of such websites the onus is on you to verify the identity of the person you are interacting with. “People need to apply their common sense before trusting anyone. In most such cases they take money from you and buy you gifts with your own money. If they offer you any gifts or demand money, be suspicious that something is wrong.”

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