Catfishing and Online Love Scams
You’ve seen the police crime alert signboards everywhere – “WeChat sex scam”, “Credit-for-sex scams” and the likes. You’ve seen advertisements at the bus stops warning us of the dangers of online love scams. In its 2017 crime brief, the Singapore Police Force (SPF) noted that internet love scams had increased by 30 percent from the year before1Zaihan Mohamed Yusof, “Online love scam victims lost record $37m in 2017”, The Straits Times, 4 February 2018, https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/courts-crime/online-love-scam-victims-lost-record-37m-last-year. Just how do these scams work and why are they on the rise?
Catfishing – the secret ingredient to online love scams
A term that has such ubiquitous use in the modern world, the word was officially added into the Oxford English dictionary in 20142“Catfish” gets added to the Oxford English Dictionary, MTV, 14 August 2014, http://www.mtv.co.uk/catfish-the-tv-show/news/catfish-gets-added-to-the-oxford-english-dictionary. Catfishing is defined as the adoption of a fake online persona to lure someone into a relationship. They may use a fictional name or take on the identities of real people, including stealing their photos. These scammers then express strong emotions for their victim within a short time frame and suggest that they move the relationship forward through text messaging or social media. They go to great lengths to gain their victim’s interest and trust, lavishing their victim with compliments, sharing their own “personal information” and even sending gifts. What feels like the romance of a lifetime can simply be built over a few months. After gaining their victim’s trust, they start to ask for money, gifts or banking and credit card details. They may even request for intimate pictures or videos to be used as blackmail.
As society gets lonelier, the love scams start coming and they don’t stop coming
It appears that millennials and boomers alike are both facing increasing rates of loneliness. A recent survey by YouGov showed that millennials were the most likely age cohort to “often” or “always” feel lonely3Minda Zetlin, “Millenials are the loneliest generation, a survey shows”, Inc. Magazine, 20 September 2019, https://www.inc.com/minda-zetlin/millennials-loneliness-no-friends-friendships-baby-boomers-yougov.html. Some speculate that the advent of social media has led millennials to become more isolated and depressed despite being connected all the time while social psychologist Daniel Perlman posited that young adults were most likely to feel the most lonely regardless of generation4Minda Zetlin, “Millenials are the loneliest generation, a survey shows”, Inc. Magazine, 20 September 2019, https://www.inc.com/minda-zetlin/millennials-loneliness-no-friends-friendships-baby-boomers-yougov.html. Coupled with the rise of online dating, it would definitely be easier to get caught up in a love scam as a young adult. It’s not all rainbows and sunshine for our elderly either. With an ageing population, more elderly are living alone and predisposed to feeling isolated and lonely. Singapore’s Department of Statistics estimates that the number of elderly persons living alone will almost double by 2030 compared to 20165William Wan, “With more seniors living alone, knowing and caring for our neighbours should be a norm”, Today Singapore, 13 November 2019, https://www.todayonline.com/voices/more-seniors-living-alone-knowing-and-caring-our-neighbours-should-be-norm. As a generation that is generally not tech-savvy, it is easy to imagine that they are quite unaware of the dangers of love scams. Thus, in an unfortunate double whammy, love scammers have taken advantage of our lonelier society for their own nefarious purposes.
How is the government helping?
Love scams are no trivial matter. In 2017, victims were duped of a record $37 million, with one victim forking out almost $6 million alone. More orthodox scams such as bank scams coming in at a loss of $1.6 million6“At least $1.6 million lost to scams targeting Singapore bank customers in past 12 months: Police”, Today Singapore, last updated 15 January 2020, https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/least-s16-million-lost-scams-targeting-singapore-bank-customers-past-12-months-policepale in comparison to the effect that internet love scams have in our society. Not only do victims lose huge sums of money, the reprehensible nature of preying on the emotional vulnerability of its victims make it all the more crucial to curb such scams. In 2016, the police affirmed its commitment to intensify public education raising awareness of online scammers7“S$12m lost to love scams last year, credit-for-sex scams up 1,723%”, Today Singapore, last updated 4 September 2019, https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/s12m-lost-love-scams-last-year-credit-sex-scams-1723.
One of the many posters created to raise awareness. Credit: Singapore Police Force
The police have also started working with neighbourhood convenience stores to combat internet love scams. Notices warning of such scams were placed in the gift cards section of the store, with counter staff instructed to show the advisory to customers who bought gift cards in bulk or do so repeatedly. In addition, National Servicemen from the SPF have been deployed at some convenience stores to give advice to distressed victims of love scams8Seow Bei Yi, “Police teaming up with shops to crackdown on credit-for-sex scams”, The Straits Times, 15 June 2016, https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/courts-crime/crackdown-on-credit-for-sex-scams. In 2019, a new Anti-Scam Centre under the SPF’s Commercial Affairs Department (CAD) was set up to combat the persistently rising cases of scams amid a slowdown in almost all other crimes. The Anti-Scam Centre works closely with banks and telcos, with powers to freeze bank accounts and terminate phone lines used by scammers9Kimberly Lim, “Anti-Scam Centre set up as scam cases continue to rise”, Today Singapore, 30 August 2019, https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/anti-scam-centre-set-scam-cases-continue-rise. It also continues to issue scam prevention advisories together with the National Crime Prevention Council.
What does the Penal Code have to say about love scams?
Now that we have learnt about love scams, what is the law doing to protect us? Section 415 of the Penal Code states that:
Whoever… fraudulently or dishonestly induces the person so deceived to… do or omit to do anything which he would not do or omit to do if he were not so deceived, and which act or omission causes or is likely to cause damage or harm to any person in body, mind, reputation or property, is said to “cheat”.
Criminals charged under section 415 may be fined and imprisoned up to 3 years while enhanced penalties under section 416 for cheating by impersonation increases imprisonment to 5 years. Criminals can also be charged under section 503 for criminal intimidation. The punishment for criminal intimidation includes a fine and/or jail term of 2 years in our usual blackmail cases in love scams.
In the criminal justice system, punishment has five recognized purposes: deterrence, incapacitation, rehabilitation, retribution, and restitution. The current punishments in place for love scams appear to be sufficiently harsh for a crime that does not involve physical injury. In fact, its penalties are similar to that of section 321 of the Penal Code for voluntarily causing hurt (VCH). Thus, the incapacitation, retribution and restitution aspect of the punishment seem to be easily fulfilled. The problem lies in deterrence. Such crimes often taken on a borderless nature due to the use of the Internet and love scammers from abroad are often undeterred by the stipulated punishments since they are confident in not getting caught. Some solutions include working more closely with internet providers, app developers and banks worldwide and increasing education efforts of the general public, the latter being more feasible for the government. Cracking down on love scams will be a tremendous task. After all, love scams prey on an inescapable part of being human.
We also need to recognise the emotional trauma suffered by the victims of love scams. Many often feel ridiculed and unwilling to reach out after they have been scammed. More support systems for victims could be put into place, including therapy. However, the State will have to juggle its limited resources in deciding whether this takes priority over the many victims of other crimes who may need more help.
What can we do to protect ourselves?
Aside from a healthy dose of scepticism that one should take when dealing with potential love interests on the internet, love scams are growing increasingly complex. The first step you should take is in ensuring the person is really who they claim to be. However, this is easier said than done if your love interest is from another country since not many people would book a flight just to check. Nonetheless, there is no harm in engaging in conversation with someone from another country as long as you continue to be careful and not part with your money. If your love interest claims to be a local, meet somewhere public like a café so that you can leave without drama if the person turns out to be a catfish. Secondly, while everybody wants to experience love at first sight, take stock of your relationship and how fast it is moving. Can this person really love you in such a short time frame having never met you in person? If you feel that the relationship is moving too fast and you lose your ability to think rationally in the flurry of emotions, why not ask if you could take things slower. Someone who genuinely wants a relationship would not mind but a scammer may feel that his time is better spent on another victim. Lastly, in the later stages of the relationship, continue to be sceptical of requests for money and never send compromising photos of yourself. Follow your love interest to the hospital if he claims to have a sick relative that needs money for treatment.
Love is blind?
It’s a wonderful feeling to fall blindly in love, you see it in fairy tales and movies. However, it is important to keep our eyes open for love scams that prey on the idealistic fantasies of its victims. The government has been stepping up its efforts in putting a stop to online scams but it can only do so much. Ultimately, the only person that can stop a love scam from happening is you. Always exercise caution in dealing with strangers online and be prudent with your money. Love doesn’t always have to be blind.