AI, GenAI fuel explosion of romance scams in SA | #DatingScams | #LoveScams | #RomanceScans

South African online dating sites are predicted to have 8.9 million users by 2028.

With many people turning to online dating to meet new people, security experts warn of the increasing risks of falling prey to sophisticated romance scams enabled by the emergence of artificial intelligence (AI) and generative AI tools.

As people around the world find the best way to celebrate Valentine’s Day, cyber criminals are exploiting the “spirit of love” through the growing use of live deepfake video chats with unsuspecting victims, warn security experts.

Described as a video or image that uses AI to realistically imitate humans, deepfakes are a growing concern fuelling online romance scams.

“Romance scammers are now using technology to create life-like images or videos of the person they believe their victim is describing in their profile preferences (ideal partner),” explains Nazia Karrim, head of product development at the Southern African Fraud Prevention Service (SAFPS).

“They will go further by engaging in real-time video calls using this avatar and the victim is likely to believe they are talking to the actual person. On average, about 7% of the incidents reported to SAFPS are romance scams, but the problem is definitely much larger, as many victims feel embarrassed to come forward and report the incidents, making it difficult to gather intelligence on the syndicates running the scams.”

While online scammers have been defrauding victims for decades, the growth of dating sites and the emergence of more advanced technologies enables them to do so in a faster and more convincing manner – at a lower risk of being caught, notes Karrim.

The online dating market in SA is predicted to witness substantial growth in users and revenue, according to a Statista report, which notes online dating revenue will reach $23.80 million (over R450 million) this year, and online dating sites will have 8.9 million users by 2028.

A study conducted by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research found the value of romance and business e-mail compromise scams reached R125 millionin 2022.

While popular dating apps used worldwide − such as Tinder, Plenty of Fish Dating and OkCupid − have made dating easier, they also expose many to new risks on their path to finding love.

Doros Hadjizenonos, regional SADC director at security firm Fortinet, says that at first, deepfakes were used mostly to create non-consensual pornographic material as a form of harassment. In the new era, they are increasingly being used in attempts at blackmail and fraud, as well as in romance scams.

“So-called romance scammers typically create fake profiles to interact with users, build a relationship, and ultimately manipulate them to extract money. Deepfake photos, voice calls and videos, and letters or poems written by generative AI tools like ChatGPT, can be very convincing, and this may result in financial losses and emotional trauma,” explains Hadjizenonos.

Generative AI helps criminals create error-free messages in seconds, whereas in the past, suspicious e-mails often got flagged by security tools or the recipient, due to poor spelling and grammar.

According to Karrim, the most common modus operandi is the sharing of sob stories related to job losses, family crisis or poor health that can’t be resolved due to a lack of funds.

A mixture of romance and investment scams are also increasingly gaining popularity, she notes.

“This is where scammers pretending to want to take their relationship to the next step and advise the target of a potential investment that could improve their circumstances, resulting in the victim making payments into fictitious investment opportunities.”

An indirect, deceptive strategy pulls on the heart strings and manipulates the target, resulting in their information being phished, financial losses, or in worst case scenarios, sexual abuse and human trafficking situations if they choose to physically meet the person, concludes Karrim.

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National Cyber Security