- Lockdowns have seen a surge of people pursuing “sugar” relationships, in which an older “sugar daddy” pays a “baby” for companionship — sometimes platonic, sometimes not.
- Business Insider investigated how scammers have seized on this trend and posed as sugar daddies in unsolicited messages, trying to trick people into parting with their money.
- A victim, a sugar baby, and a fraud expert piece together what they know.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
The man who scammed Elizabeth Mirah seemed legitimate. A stranger contacted the 28-year-old Massachusetts woman on the fetish social network FetLife, offering her money. He identified himself as a “sugar daddy” — typically an older man who pays younger “sugar babies” for dates, companionship, and sometimes more.
“We went back and forth and he seemed like a legitimate person,” Mirah said. When he asked for her bank-account details, she became suspicious. But she was about to lose her job as a cafeteria manager and thought: “I need the money. What’s the worst that could happen?”
To her surprise, two checks of $1,500 appeared in her account. When the mystery benefactor asked her to send $500 to his nephew on the mobile-payment platform Cash App, she agreed. She questioned why he couldn’t do it himself but felt she owed the stranger a favor. She continued to send money. Three days later, the $3,000 had disappeared. The checks had bounced. It was too late. By then, Mirah had already sent $1,000.
As people’s loss of companionship and income continues to bite during the COVID-19 pandemic, sugar relationships have become more popular. SeekingArrangement, a website that matches sugar partners and has more than 20 million members globally, reported a 74% increase in sign-ups from March 17 to June 30, compared with the same period last year. The data shows genuine sugar daddies are relatively rare: Only 16% of members, who are background checked, are registered as sugar daddies, rather than sugar babies.
A Business Insider investigation found that scammers posing as sugar daddies were quick to exploit people’s isolation and financial vulnerability during the pandemic. Mirah is one of hundreds of social-media users who said they received an unsolicited message while on lockdown from a scammer pretending to be a sugar daddy. Among those Business Insider spoke with were Mie Shayla Castro, 24, and Lilian Weaver, 19, who said they each received 50 direct messages from people claiming to be sugar daddies since April.
Between April and June, tweets containing the words “sugar daddy” and “scam” increased 51% compared with January through March. The Federal Trade Commission reported more than 12,000 romance scams in the first half of 2020, a 7% increase from the first half of 2019. According to John Breyault, the vice president of fraud at the National Consumers League, the real number is likely even higher.
“Many people are embarrassed when they are victims of these scams. That may prevent them from filing a complaint,” he told Business Insider.
Experience helped Josh, a 22-year-old former sugar baby, detect the scam. Because of his past genuine sugar relationships — one lasted five months and consisted of daily texts and calls, for which Josh was paid through Venmo — he immediately recognized the approaches on Instagram and Twitter as fakes.
He said the few offers he’s had per week since the start of April did not resemble his conversations on SeekingArrangement. There, genuine sugar daddies never asked him for money in advance.
“The sugar daddy is in the position of power,” he said. “So if the sugar daddy is questioning you and your loyalty and what you can do for them, that’s when they’re probably trying to take advantage of you.”
The fake messages were “robotic,” “transactional,” and “formulaic,” he said. Most followed the advance-fee scam, known mockingly as the “Nigerian Prince” scam after a previous generation of scammers grew fond of emails claiming to be Nigerian royalty and asking for bank-account details to move large amounts of money.
The pattern here is similar: A vague compliment is followed by a cash offer for virtual companionship. If the victim responds, the scammer asks them to “prove her loyalty” by sending an advance payment, typically ranging from $2 to $100. Some ask directly for bank information, some ask for a gift-card code, and others ask for a payment through a money-transfer app.
Most of them request payments through the money-transfer app Cash App. It’s unclear why scammers prefer Cash App to its competitors, and there is no suggestion of any wrongdoing on its part. Satnam Narang, a staff research engineer at the cyber-exposure company Tenable, attributed the popularity to the company’s regular sweepstakes, such as “Super Cash App Friday Giveaways” on Twitter and Instagram. Users signal an interest in obtaining quick cash by posting their usernames, called Cashtags. Cash App declined to comment.
“When you share that piece of public information, scammers can basically just suck all that information up into a database and start sending requests to these users,” Narang said. Many scammers then find followers of Cash App’s accounts, search for #CashApp, or approach those who have responded to the app’s tweets.
The scammers’ methods seem straightforward, but their identities remain a mystery. The photos they use in profiles are often recycled across accounts, which use different names. Some account bios include the same number for WhatsApp; others post numerous WhatsApp numbers. The vast majority are temporary internet numbers, making them virtually untraceable.
One person who narrowly averted being scammed, 20-year-old Briana Salcedo, said she believed her would-be scammer was posing as a sugar daddy and as a sugar baby elsewhere on Twitter. The scammer contacted Salcedo and sent their Cash App username, as well as a screenshot of a conversation with a woman to whom the person claimed to have sent money. She searched for this woman’s Twitter page, but it listed the sugar daddy’s Cash App username as their own. She suspected the same person ran both accounts or that they were owned by two people working together.
Many victims and those who nearly became ones say they believe the sugar-daddy scammers are in an organized network because of the similarities between the photos, messages, and tactics. Fraud experts, like Breyault, are unsure where such a network might be based.
“Oftentimes you’ll see particular scams coming out of a particular country: organized gangs focusing on a type of scam. On these sugar-daddy scams, I haven’t seen enough data to say there’s one country in particular that these are coming out of,” he said.
Social-media companies appear to be monitoring the trend and removing related accounts on an ongoing basis. Twitter has removed the “donald eric” account pictured above, for example.
A spokesperson for Facebook, which owns Instagram, said: “We do not allow fraudulent or inauthentic behaviour on Instagram and we will remove accounts that violate our policies. We have a safety and security team of 35,000 people working to keep our platforms safe and we block millions of inauthentic accounts every day. If someone believes they have spotted fraudulent activity, we encourage them to report it using our online form or in-app tools, so we can take action.”
Breyault advises people to stop talking to potential scammers on social media and contact a bank if they’ve shared any sensitive information. If they’re in the US, Breyault said they should file a complaint with the state attorney general, Fraud.org, or the Federal Trade Commission.
“Flagging these accounts as potentially fraudulent not only helps yourself, but you also help to build a record for enforcement agencies,” he said.
Once she realized she had been scammed, Mirah, the Massachusetts woman, filed numerous complaints but said she doubted she would ever get her money back.
“If I can’t get my money back, let me make sure other people know what to look for if this is going to happen to them too,” she said.
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