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Your hot date may be a hotline to becoming a scam victim

13 February 2024 Southern African Fraud Prevention Service (SAFPS)

Technology has disrupted many aspects of traditional life. When you are sitting at dinner and seeing a couple going out on a "first date", consider that this may be their first in-person date and that they have been interacting (dating) online for months.

According to global data and business intelligence platform, Statista, the number of online dating users in South Africa is expected to reach 6.7 million users by 2028. The report adds that the current user penetration rate of dating websites is believed to be 8.0% and may increase to 10.4% by 2028.

This is good news for nervous daters. However, people must be aware of a darker side to online dating, warns Nazia Karrim, Head of Product Development at the Southern African Fraud Prevention Service (SAFPS).

There are a lot of romance scams that are targeting potential victims. According to Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) statistics, the value of romance and business email compromise scams in 2022 was R125 million. The SAFPS notes that this is a growing problem.

Karrim explains that romance scams originate with the victim being romantically manipulated via online dating websites or apps. Additionally, victims can also be targeted by scammers who are introduced to victims by people the victims believe are friends.

Increased isolation
Karrim points out that romance scams significantly increased during the COVID-19 pandemic when South Africans felt the impact of being isolated from the rest of society.

"Many South Africans felt a deep sense of loneliness during their COVID isolation, particularly those who had to endure it alone. Longing for human connection, people turned to online dating platforms as it was a way to interact and seek a release from the anxiety that they were feeling," points out Karim.

However, Karrim points out that, while this is fast becoming a novel way to meet someone, opening yourself up over internet dating platforms does create a comfort zone where people do not do the necessary security checks of who they are interacting with.

"Online dating is the future. However, users need to be aware of the risks that are associated with these platforms," warns Karrim.

Modus operandi
Karrim points out that the modus operandi that scammers are using is simple.

"Scammers will become very interested in your life and interests while being vague about theirs. Once the trust has been established and romantic emotions have started to develop, scammers typically present their victims with a sad tale intended to pull on their heartstrings. This story is followed by a request for money to help pay for a sick relative's care or school fees," says Karrim who adds that losing a job is another tactic that scammers use to request money.

She adds that it is important to note that romance scams are not the only way people are being swindled out of their money. Karrim states that the SAFPS has noticed that romance scams are increasingly used as a gateway to run other scams.

"Last year, we profiled the prevalence of Ancestry Scams, where scammers use fake sangomas to take advantage of a person's spirituality. Ancestry Scams are used in romance scams where scammers urge their victims to visit a sangoma to confirm whether their relationship will flourish,” says Karrim.

Additionally, scammers are running investment scams and business scams using their victims to target their family, friends or co-workers.

Prevention is better than cure
How do we combat this? Karrim points out that increased vigilance is paramount in online dating. "Do your investigation. Conduct full background checks, including criminal (police clearance) and identity verification on anyone you are dating to see if their online presence matches the information they provided you. Additionally, suggest an in-person meeting; if they are reluctant or evasive, this should be a major red flag," says Karrim.

She acknowledges that these scams are being run by well-funded syndicates who are well-trained in the scams they run, so it may be challenging to immediately identify a scam without additional tools. Because of the increase in scams in South Africa, the SAFPS launched Yima, a platform offering online tools to prevent consumer from falling victim to these scams. Karrim points out that the Yima platform has proven very effective in the proactive fight against fraud.

"In response to the growing need for a proactive approach to fraud prevention, the SAFPS launched Yima. Yima is a one-stop-shop website for South Africans to report scams, secure their identity, and scan any website for vulnerabilities related to scams. They can also educate themselves on identifying a scam. These tools will enable consumers to surf the internet and access key products such as online banking and money transfers more confidently and ensure consumers are aware and informed. These are just some exciting elements South Africans can access through the site," says Karrim who adds that Yima is a free service for consumers.

Regarding romance scams, Yima has a tool called Verify'm, which works in conjunction with Secure Citizen. "Verify'm works by biometrically verifying a person’s identity against the records that the Department of Home Affairs has on file. If the biometrics does not match the information you have on the person, or there is no information, please proceed cautiously," pleads Karrim.
She adds that Verify’m is a free customer service within Secure Citizen and SAFPS.

Alerting authorities
The main element of the Yima website is the ability to report a scam incident or any suspicious activity to the SAFPS.

Intelligence gathered from These reports will be collated and shared with law enforcement for investigation. Users also have access to a scam hotline (083 123 7226) to report a fraud incident directly to their banks, retailers, or insurance companies via a single number. Users only need to remember one number rather than search for each institution's contact numbers online.

We need to increase reporting
Manie van Schalkwyk, CEO of the SAFPS, warns that while the SAFPS and CSIR statistics paint a picture of the growing nature of romance scams, it is only a fraction of the crime's full impact.

"Unfortunately, there is a growing trend of victims not reporting these types of crimes to the authorities and the SAFPS because they often feel ashamed and question their ability to judge character. This should never be the case as they were caught by professional scammers. The trend of not reporting these crimes is concerning as we cannot become proactive in the fight against scams and fraud if crimes are not reported. Further, reporting these crimes may prevent consumers from falling prey to the same tactics. The SAFPS encourages all victims to report these crimes to the SAFPS and the SAPS. This has been made very easy by Yima," says Van Schalkwyk, who adds that the process of being protected against these crimes and the fallout from these crimes are available through the click of a button and calling the Yima hotline.

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