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Pandemic loneliness accelerates catfishing scams in SA

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There has been a huge increase in online catfishing scams − also known as dating scams or romance scams − over the course of the pandemic, with South African victims losing around $9.4 million (R134 million) in 2020.

This is according to a report compiled by research firm TechShielder, which analysed data to provide a landscape of where the biggest online dating fraudsters live, the countries with the highest number of victims, and how much money, on average, is lost to victims of catfishing.

The research found that during 2020, dating scams cost the world $218 million, which works out to be an average loss of $17 600 per victim.

The international report shows the Philippines had the highest number of dating scam cases, with over 1 300 incidents, responsible for $4 million in financial loss.

Ranking in second place is Nigeria – the West African country accounted for 1 129 reports, with a total loss of $16.8 million. This equals an average loss per victim of $14 892.

Rounding off the top three is Canada, where $7.8 million was taken out of love-seekers’ pockets, with criminals breaking 1 054 hearts due to catfishing.

South Africa ranks at 18 on the global list of romance fraud, with 190 reported incidents, amounting to an overall $9.4 million and an average of $49 200 lost per victim.

Fraudsters in the UK scammed the most amount of money ($34.1 million), with romance scams in the country amounting to over 5 000 cases reported in 2020.

This was followed by Turkey ($25.6 million), with Nigeria ($16.8 million) ranking in third place in the swindle stakes.

Women were most likely to be a victim of dating scams, with 57% of UK victims identified as female, 37% as male and the gender of the remaining 6% was undisclosed.

The amount of money lost by victims per country.
The amount of money lost by victims per country.

“It’s the 21st-century and the majority of the world goes online to date,” says Lasse Walstad, co-founder of TechShielder.

“As people try to find companionship during these difficult times, fraudsters have used this as a chance to not only leave people broken-hearted, but also empty their pockets, by playing on the emotional triggers of hopeful romantics, with the aim of getting them to send money, gifts or personal details via dating apps, websites or even social media platforms.”

The statistics are likely to be higher, notes the report, as victims of dating scams are often too embarrassed to report the con to police.

The South African Banking Risk Information Centre (Sabric) has for years been alerting South African women of online dating scams, as part of its schemes and scams awareness campaign run every August.

The organisation noted the increased prevalence of romance scams is worrying and difficult to curb, given that the modus operandi exploits the emotions of the victim, who believes they are in a romantic relationship with someone who allegedly cares for them.

“Whilst online dating and romance scams were initially perpetrated by fraudsters who were either operating alone or in relatively small syndicated groups, organised criminals have now entered this arena and the scale and sophistication of these scams increased significantly in recent times,” warns Sabric.

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