Many Malaysians have fallen for online love scams during the pandemic, causing them to lose thousands of ringgit or more. If you're one of the victims (or want to avoid becoming one), read below to find out how to spot and avoid romance scammers.
We shake our heads in disbelief when people lose money in online love scams. “Wah, it was so obvious! How can they fall for that?” That’s what we tell ourselves, confident that we’ll never become a victim. Well, don’t be too sure about that. Malaysians are still losing money to love scams as con artists target lonely people living in pandemic-related isolation.
Malaysia recorded 481 cases involving love scams during the period between March 18 and June 30 last year. According to Deputy Home Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Mohamed Said in a The Malaysian Reserve report, these cases involved losses amounting to RM18.1 million.
Along with e-commerce fraud, Macau scams, non-existent loan schemes and SMS frauds, love scams remain among the most common financial scams in Malaysia.
In August 2020, Free Malaysia Today reported that a businessman told police he lost RM295,950 due to an online love scam involving his 14-year-old son. The victim’s son had allegedly befriended a girl via a social site, who then persuaded the victim’s son to lend her money.
Meanwhile, in October 2020, The New Straits Times reported that a woman in her 50s was duped out of RM480,000 by a man she had befriended on social media.
Despite police crackdowns and news reports that highlight the danger of online romance scams, we still hear about cases like these on a regular basis.
Why are so many people falling for love scams?
Online dating apps such as Match, OkCupid and Bumble have grown in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic as singles embrace digital dating in the new normal.
The ASEAN Post reported that between September and October 2020, dating apps in the U.S. experienced a surge in usage with Match growing by 21%, while OkCupid grew 21% and Bumble expanded by 16%.
The same report also revealed that similar increases have been recorded in other parts of the world. Chinese dating app Tantan stated that its average usage in February 2020 increased by over 30% compared with pre-pandemic usage.
While these apps are suitable platforms to meet new people, users should take certain precautions while socialising.
Identity security counsellor Suli Malet-Warden, who works with IDCARE (Australia and New Zealand’s national identity & cyber support service), told ABC News (Australia) that scammers hook their victims by using the complex language of love to connect with them.
"The language is really important. When we speak to victims they say they've been connected, prolifically in the initial stages, using extremely validating language and we are all suckers for it," Malet-Warden said.
"Being told how much they are loved, how wonderful they are… they use that sort of validating language and the prolific nature of it, regular text messages not just through the day, but through the night. The victim is then expecting those validating messages to come through. They're incredibly supportive, they're appealing, they're flattering, they're soothing,” the identity security counsellor added.
In the same article, Malet-Warden also pointed out that the process results in our brains releasing certain chemicals such as dopamine – which causes euphoric feelings, as well as rising oxytocin levels that increases our level of trust.
Three ways to spot a romance scammer
Besides the extremely supportive and flattering messages, here are other surefire ways to spot a romance scammer.
1. Your date professes his love quickly
Alarm bells should be ringing in your head when a person says that he or she is in love with you within a short period of time. It’s a strategy scammers utilise to persuade you to share your personal information and indirectly, the answers to security questions that you use to secure important accounts online.
2. Your date is working overseas
The person might claim to be a foreigner with a thriving career outside Malaysia. Your online romantic interest could be “staying” in the U.S. or Europe. The other “professions” that romance scammers have been known to use are:
Despite the long distance, scammers regularly talk about how they can’t wait to meet you. They will also mention that they are making arrangements to see you as soon international travel restrictions are lifted.
There have been news reports of scammers posing as soldiers.
3. Unavailable for video chats / phone calls
They mostly woo you via text. Try calling and your call will usually go to voicemail. They will later explain that they are currently travelling on a plane for a business trip, or they could be in the middle of an important meeting at work. Scammers are experts in making up excuses.
They might also claim that the internet coverage in their location is terrible. Thus, they are unable to speak to you via video call. Brace yourself for even more excuses.
How romance scammers persuade people to part with their money
Love scammers usually come up with creative, persuasive ways and false promises to attain your financial details. If you encounter any of these storylines while talking to people you have never met, it’s likely that they could be scamming you.
Based on various news reports about love scams, your online “boyfriend” might say that he is sending a huge amount of money to you. Pretty soon, you will be able to use his funds to buy a house and then happily settle down together when he finally comes to Malaysia.
Later, another individual who claims to be an officer of Bank Negara Malaysia (BNM) or a money transfer agency will contact you. This person will ask you to pay taxes and custom clearance fees before your boyfriend’s money could be released to you.
Other scenarios that should rouse your suspicions include:
“I have sent you a precious, expensive gift but it was ‘detained’ at the customs department.”
"I need a loan to buy flight tickets so I can visit you.”
"I need some startup money for a business venture in Malaysia.”
Love scammers usually come up with false promises to attain your financial details.
Are dating apps taking precautionary measures to protect users?
Meeting your potential Mister or Miss Right is exciting, but it’s best to remain cautious as well in the world of online dating. According to Tinder’s safety and policy section, they have a fraud team that conducts manual reviews of suspicious profiles, activities and user-generated reports.
The popular dating app also stated that users should not send money to someone they haven’t met in person. Additionally, they have also provided a self-reporting tool so users can report any individual who has requested for their financial information.
How to save yourself and your loved ones from getting scammed
A con artist or fraud syndicate will target anyone, regardless of their age, ethnicity, religion or background. Here are some valuable tips to prevent you as well as your family members and friends from becoming victims of fraud:
- Scammers often pretend to be authority figures like government and bank officials. So you should NEVER share your personal information or send money to strangers – be it via phone text, email or phone call.
- Conduct thorough research on who you are dealing with, the individuals that make up the organisation as well as its services and products.
- Check with Bank Negara Malaysia (BNM) and the Securities Commission (SC) if you need to verify information on an individual or organisation.
- Scammers prefer that you make your payments through non-secure methods such as money cheques and cryptocurrency like Bitcoin. They could also request that you use wire, bank or international fund transfers. These non-secure methods are tough to track and will make it difficult for you to recover your money.
What to do if you are a victim?
According to BNM, you should follow these steps if you have been scammed:
- Lodge a police report
- Then report to relevant enforcement agencies
- Keep all records and documentations – including crucial details of the persons/organisations involved: name, age, title, agency
For more information, you can directly contact the two BNM centres below:
BNMTELELINK (Call Centre)
Tel.: 1-300-88-5465 (1-300-88-LINK)
Fax: 03-2174 1515
SMS to 15888: BNM TANYA [your report / query]
Operating Hours: 9.00 a.m. – 5.00 p.m. (Monday – Friday)
BNMLINK (Walk-in Centre)
Ground Floor, D Block,
Bank Negara Malaysia,
Jalan Dato’ Onn
50480 Kuala Lumpur
Operating Hours: 9.00 a.m. – 5.00 p.m. (Monday – Friday)
Enjoying online dating while staying safe
Despite the rising number of fraud cases involving love scams, online dating apps are still great platforms to connect with new people as long as you take the necessary precautionary measures. In fact, there are some happily married couples today who met each other online.