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cupidsmessage-missourihistoricalsociety.jpgI regularly get Friend requests on Facebook from things I doubt are real people. They are always male and, at a guess, 40-something, have no Friends in common with me, and don't bother to write a message explaining how I know them. If I take the trouble to click through to their profiles, their Friends lists are empty. This week's request, from "Smith Thomson", is muscled, middle-aged, and slightly brooding. He lists his workplace as a US Army base and his birthplace as Houston. His effort is laughably minimal: zero Friends and the only profile content is the cover photograph plus a second photo with a family in front of a Disney castle, probably Photoshopped. I have a nasty, suspicious mind, and do not accept the request.

One of the most interesting projects under the umbrella of the Research Institute for Science of Cyber Security is Detecting and Preventing Mass-Marketing Fraud, led from the University of Warwick by Monica Whitty, and explained here. We tend to think of romance scams in particular, less so advance-fee fraud, as one-to-one rip-offs. Instead, the reality behind them is highly organized criminals operating at scale.

This is a billion-dollar industry with numerous victims. On Monday, the BBC news show Panorama offered a carefully worked example. The journalists followed the trail of these "catfish" by setting up a fake profile and awaiting contact, which quickly arrived. Following clues and payment instructions led the journalists to the scammer himself, in Lagos, Nigeria. One of the victims in particular displays reactions Whitty has seen in her work, too: even when you explain the fraud, some victims still don't recognize the same pattern when they are victimized again. Panorama's saddest moment is an older man who was clearly being retargeted after having already been fleeced of £100,000, his life savings. The new scammer was using exactly the same methodology, and yet he justified sending his new "girlfriend" £500 on the basis that it was comparatively modest, though at least he sounded disinclined to send more. He explained his thinking this way: "They reckon that drink and drugs are big killers. Yeah, they are, but loneliness is a bigger killer than any of them, and trying to not be lonely is what I do every day."

I doubt Panorama had to look very hard to find victims. They pop up a lot at security events, where everyone seems to know someone who's been had: the relative whose computer they had to clean after they'd been taken in by a tech support scam, the friend they'd had to stop from sending money. Last year, one friend spent several months seeking restitution for her mother, who was at least saved from the worst by an alert bank teller at her local branch. The loss of those backstops - people in local bank branches and other businesses who knew you and could spot when you were doing something odd - is a largely unnoticed piece of why these scams work.

In a 2016 survey, Microsoft found that two-thirds of US consumers had been exposed to a tech support scam in the previous year. In the UK in 2016, a report by the US Better Business Bureau says (PDF) , there were more than 34,000 complaints about this type of fraud alone - and it's known that less than 10% of victims complain. Each scam has its preferred demographic. Tech support fraud doesn't typically catch older people, who have life experience and have seen other scams even if not this particular one. The biggest victims of this type of scam are millennials aged 18 to 34 - with no gender difference.

DAPM's meeting mostly focused on dating scams, a particular interest of Whitty's because the emotional damage, on top of the financial damage, is so fierce. From her work, I've learned that the military connection "Smith Thomson" claimed is a common pattern. Apparently some people are more inclined to trust a military background, and claiming that they're located on a military base makes it easy for scammers to dodge questions about exactly what they're doing and where they are and resist pressure to schedule a real-life meeting.

Whitty and her fellow researchers have already discovered that the standard advice we give people doesn't work. "If something looks too good to be true it usually is" is only meaningful at the beginning - and that's not when the "too good to be true" manifests itself. Fraudsters know to establish trust before ratcheting up the emotions and starting to ask - always urgently - for money. By then, requests that would raise alarm flags at the beginning seem like merely the natural next steps in a developed relationship. Being scammed once gets you onto a "suckers list", ripe for retargeting - like Panorama's victim. These, too, are not new; they have been passed around among fraudsters for at least a century.

The point of DAPM's research is to develop interventions. They've had some statistically significant success with instructions teaching people to recognize scams. However, this method requires imparting a lot of information, which means the real conundrum is how you motivate people to participate when most believe they're too smart to get caught. The situation is very like the paranormal claims The Skeptic deals with: no matter how smart you are or how highly educated, you, too, can be fooledz. And, unlike in other crimes, DAPM finds, 52% of these victims blame themselves.

Illustrations: Cupid's Message (via Missouri Historical Society.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.


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