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Don’t be Deceived by a Pretty Face and a Sad Story

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As Christmas 2015 fades into memory, and January begins its annual onslaught of gym adverts and crash diets, we hope that Santa Claus (or Saint Nicolas, Befana, et el) brought you everything you were hoping for.

Gamers in particular were spoilt for choice in the run up to the Holidays. Many may have eagerly anticipated dodging sleep, food, and conversation to play the post-apocalyptic ‘Fallout 4’. The denizens of the Fallout universe often have their own agenda; so they can be manipulative, economical with the truth, and downright deceitful.

Of course, the lies told to us by the characters in the game, sit within the fact that the game itself is a fiction — one in which we willingly participate. We briefly suspend our disbelief, to allow ourselves to become immersed in the fantasy that we really are fighting super mutants in the ruins of civilization.

This ability to augment our processing of new information, to become mentally absorbed, enhances our enjoyment of all imaginative works, literature, theatre, and film to name just a few.

You might well be asking yourself, what does all of this have to do with cyber security?

The point is, we all have a certain capacity to deceive ourselves, or allow ourselves to be deceived. Often, this is a temporary condition, brought on for entertainment purposes; after the magician takes a bow, we go back to normal, and no harm is done.

But scammers know how easy it can be to pull the wool over our eyes, how willing we are to believe in a story that we want to be true. Particularly, how hard it is to be objective when presented with a scenario we like the sound of.

Most of us have gotten wise to frauds that prey on our greed; emails about phantom lottery wins and displaced royals tend to elicit a smirk and are swiftly consigned to the junk folder.

So, some scammers have changed tack, targeting instead a different human need, with a different story; one even more compelling than a massive financial windfall.

Which brings us to the crux of the matter, romance scams. Romance scams typically involve a victim becoming convinced that they have struck up an online relationship with an attractive, sometimes rich, utterly fabricated, sweetie (conveniently, in a different part of the world).

Once the hapless lover is thoroughly besotted, the scammers begin to hit them up for cash, “Oh, I’d love to come and visit you honey, but I just can’t afford the plane ticket xx” — you get the idea.

Romance frauds aren’t new, but they are pervasive and show no signs of thinning out. In fact, they are now available to a wider group of criminals than ever before, with the introduction of dating scam kits. As reported by Krebs On Security, these packages are available for sale, and contain advice, photos, template emails in various languages, and so on.

So, how can you avoid being conned?

January, being the season of New Years resolutions and divorce lawyers, is perhaps a time when many consider the possibility of a new relationship. You may read about the victims of romance scams and think, “What a prime pillock, I’d never have fallen for that!” But remember, many of these people have been worked on for some time, and the scams are becoming increasingly sophisticated. It’s dangerous to assume that anyone is immune.

Even if you’re confident that you wouldn’t be taken in by such a con yourself, consider friends and relatives who may be vulnerable, perhaps they’re making their first forays into online dating this year — a quiet word ahead of time could save them a world of hurt.

Unfortunately, there are few useful technical measures that you can use to keep yourself (or others) safe from this type of scam. However, there are warning signs.

Here are our top tips for avoiding romance scams:

Be skeptical and do your homework

Been approached online, out of the blue, by someone looking for love? Try not to let your heart rule your head; a scammer is likely to be spamming out some initial generic text, try searching online for a few phrases, or the name they’ve used.

Be wary if your new beau is phone-shy

As Brian Krebs points out in his article, scammers will use so-called criminal call centers to field phone calls with victims. However, they tend to save this for late in the scam, as such services are costly. If there’s always some reason your love-interest can’t talk, alarm bells should ring.

Pictures seem too good to be true? They probably are.

It’s a common complaint that people often select profile pictures in which they are younger, slimmer, and more attractively lit than is currently the case. Scammers, on the other hand, have no compunction about stealing someone else’s photos to use in their schemes. Google’s reverse image search can be used to discover where pictures have been posted before, which may help uncover any deception.

Story seems too good to be true? It probably is.

Yes, sometimes love does conquer all and the model, heiress or champion tennis player falls for the guy/girl-next-door. However, as with all things in life, always try to take an unsubstantiated story with a pinch of salt.

It’s not just older men who need to be cautious.

Perhaps the stereotypical victim of the romance scam is a slightly lonely older man. But scammers aren’t choosey; they can be whoever you want them to be — assuming you have money. Men and women of any age or orientation should be alert.

Get a second opinion

If unsure, ask someone you trust, someone who has your best interests at heart. An outside perspective may be useful in pointing out clues you overlooked in the initial rush of excitement. Many romance scams have been thwarted by concerned friends and relatives.

Don’t send cash

This is perhaps the simplest, and simultaneously the most difficult, way to avoid being scammed. Any request for money should be viewed with extreme prejudice, particularly if the reason given is urgent (for example, the supposed lover is stranded at an airport).

Don’t have any cash? Still don’t send cash!

Be especially wary if any suggestion of obtaining credit is made. Getting a new partner into debt probably isn’t a great way to begin a relationship in any case!

We hope that all your budding romances in 2016 are happy and successful. But try to keep a cool head, stay a little skeptical. And remember, vigilance is the best defense against being conned.

Photo credit: ‘Couple’ by Wyatt Fisher, http://www.christiancrush.com/