September 18, 2013

This Casanova Was An Imposter

Raul Siqueiros knows his way around Facebook. He frequently updates his own personal page, and as a Realtor, he also runs his company page to attract new clients.

He's a social guy. But he had no idea how social he was—how in-demand—until a woman reached out to him. Then another, then another. Eventually more than 50 women contacted him, all asking the same question: Is this the man I've been dating online?

A scammer somewhere had hatched an ingenious plan: Using a "social bot"—software that appears to be a person on social networks—the scammer had created a profile on several dating sites all over the country. The profile not only had Raul's name, but photos of him and of his children, as well as personal details of his life. Some of the women who'd responded to the fake profile were so captivated by him that they obliged requests to send him money, via Western Union. One was about to meet him in person.

This was no dating game.

“I was shocked,” Siqueiros said. “I couldn’t believe it was happening—that someone was using my name and pictures of me and my family to hurt these women.”

Thousands of men and women fall victim to romance scams every year. Lured by promises of love and stories of tragedy, they often send money to their scammers. The FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) reports that victims of romance scammers lost more than $56 million in 2012, and those numbers are likely higher since many victims are too embarrassed to file complaints.

But now with the development of social bots, it’s becoming easier for bad guys to commit these crimes of the heart.

“They have a larger platform to make these types of scams happen—and they can code a program to automate it and lower their costs to execute the attacks,” said Filippo Menczer, a principal investigator at Truthy, an Indiana University research program that tracks bots and Twitter trends. “This particular group, with a social bot, could contact, say 100,000 people a day, instead of a 1,000.”

The victims

Siqueiros noticed that many of the women who contacted him about the dating scam were older, and they had minimal experience with social media and the Internet. That jibes with national statistics from IC3, which show that women age 50 and older are the biggest victims of online romance scams. Plus, the women were using lesser-known dating sites that were regional in scope.

And, of course, Siqueiros was a victim, too. Though he didn’t fall for a scammer’s false declaration of love, his identity was stolen and misused online. He contacted all the dating sites and requested they take down profiles that used his name and images of his family to target victims. Now when anyone searches his name on the Internet, images appear with watermarks that read, “Fake.”

“It’s annoying because I have to explain I’m not a scam artist when I’m meeting people for work for the first time,” Siqueiros said.

How it started

A little digging revealed that Siqueiros’ problems began with Facebook. All the images used in the fake dating profiles were pulled from his social network during a specific time period—after Siqueiros friended someone for work.

“I do all the things you’re not supposed to do on social media: I post where I’m at, every move I make, all that good stuff,” he said. “If anyone was associated with real estate or showed an interest in real estate, I’d accept their friend request.”

Siqueiros ended up with hundreds of friends he had never met in person, including the scammer who stole his identity. Siqueiros discovered that he friended him because he and the man shared a mutual friend on Facebook. “But when I contacted the mutual friend, he realized he had never met the person.”

Once Siqueiros scrubbed his friend list and deleted the suspected scammer, the calls from concerned women began to taper off.

How to protect yourself

If you’re interested in dating online, experts recommend sticking to nationally known dating sites only. The FBI says you can spot an online dating scammer if they:

1. Ask you to leave the dating website where you met and to communicate via personal e-mail or instant messaging;
2. Profess instant feelings of love;
3. Send you a photograph of himself or herself that looks like something from a glamour magazine;
4. Claim to be from the U.S. and is traveling or working overseas;
5. Make plans to visit you but is then unable to do so because of a tragic event; or
6. Ask for money for a variety of reasons (travel, medical emergencies, hotel bills, hospitals bills for child or other relative, visas or other official documents, losses from a financial setback or crime victimization).

To protect yourself from getting into a situation like the one Siqueiros found himself in, practice safe social media habits. Limit the information you share. Stay updated on privacy policies. Be very wary when interacting with people you don’t know.

“This experience was a big wake-up call,” Siqueiros said. “My advice to people out there is that this can happen to you, too, so be careful, especially on Facebook.”

 

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