Don’t Let Romance Scams Spoil Your Valentine’s Day

By Dr. Richard White

Valentine’s Day is for romance and connection, but scammers are skilled at using emotion as a social engineering tool.

In my book “CYBERCRIME: The Madness Behind the Methods,” I explain in detail how social engineering manipulates how we see and hear what we want to believe. In turn, dopamine released in the brain reinforces our new actualized belief.

There are five areas where scammers are most successful at engineering our beliefs and driving our actions through emotional connections.

1. Email and Phishing scams are always a threat. When romance is in the air, concerns for security may take a back seat to the excitement of finding the perfect romantic gift.

For example, scammers develop ads designed to lure victims to malicious websites or steal their credit card information with promises of gift cards, great discounts or a gift you never knew existed. Be wary of unknown companies and always verify the validity of a company before clicking a link.

2. Facebook and social media are powerful marketing sights for scammers. Perpetrators use the power of search algorithms to seek out the right victims for their scam and ads you clicked in the past combined with your search patterns allow just the right ad to be placed on your screen.

Scammers’ ads may look legitimate and their products or services may be real, but their goal is to steal your information or take your payment without delivering merchandise. Remember that social media platforms are designed to get people to respond to ads. Don’t click on an ad until you research the company with a Google search or the Better Business Bureau to ensure trustworthiness.

3. Fake profiles are a common problem on dating sites. Leading up to and during Valentine’s Day, scammers up their romantic game to establish online relationships. Remember, people tend to see and hear what they want to believe.

A common scam involves a U.S. citizen or service member who is living abroad but soon to return home, conveniently right near were you live. Once the online relationship is established, the scammer comes up with an issue and needs your financial assistance to return home.

4. Variations of the Nigerian prince scam abound. This scam involves receiving something amazing in exchange for documentation, money or a credit card number.

You receive some type of communication from a person searching for someone with your name who claims to be a long-lost love, family member, or special someone who got away. But he or she is not sure you’re the right person, so asks you to provide information to prove who you are.

Remember who is at risk here, and that you are the one putting yourself out there—possibly in harm’s way. Slow down, think and verify whom you are dealing with.

5. Compromised websites are a great way to spread malware. A website may be real and belong to a legitimate business or person, but it may have been hacked.

Be careful with any type of site that is open to the public for posting comments. Anyone can post a link that will direct you to malware or a compromised website. Whether an advertisement, a product review, or a personal ad from someone searching for you, do not let your emotions get the better of you and do not rush into something out of pure excitement. Research links before clicking on them and don’t ever post personal information online.

Also, don’t forget about the things you can do to mitigate your risk. Here are five:

  1. Always be mindful of phishing emails and attachments. If a link seems to be exactly what you are looking for, beware. Scammers may have targeted you.
  2. Many websites will allow you to test a link before you click on it, such as checkshortURL.com, virusdesk.kaspersky.com/, and scanurl.net/. These sites will let you know if the link has been reported as malicious or if malware was found on the site. Always test a link before clicking on it.
  3. Be careful when sharing personal or financial information with someone you have not met personally.
  4. Protect your privacy when using an online dating site. Do not use the same username and email address used for your normal daily activity and never put your full name on your profile.
  5. Never go off-site to use personal email or instant messaging. Social media and dating sites have a communication platform designed to protect you and keep your information private.

Finally, if you do have a need to send money overseas please follow this advice: Wiring money is the same as sending cash. It is gone as soon as it is sent. The most secure way to send money to a U.S. citizen abroad is through the U.S. State Department. To find out more about this and other options for sending money abroad go to http://www.travel.state.gov and visit the international travel section or contact Western Union and ask about this program.

Remember, your best defense online is combining awareness of cyber threats and risks with recognizing your own personal bias in the moment. Ultimately, if you are not completely comfortable with an email or website, then leave it alone.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Dr. Richard White is an adjunct professor of cybersecurity and information assurance at University of Maryland University College (UMUC) and the author of Cybercrime: The Madness Behind the Method.”

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