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RomCon

Part of
Finance

Embedding trust in everyday online interactions

MA 2024
Keywords
Romance Scams, Verification, Online Safety, Older People, Dating Platforms
Overview

EmTrust is an end-to-end verification and safety service enhancing security on dating sites and social media platforms. 
By leveraging cross-platform intelligence, 
it improves scam prevention, effectively minimising scammers' exposure to older users seeking companionship online. Through this service we aim to reimagine online safety, making dating platforms and social media secure environments for finding love and companionship for older users.


We aim to reimagine online safety, making dating platforms and social media secure environments for finding love and companionship for older users.

Collaboration

To support our research, understand how romance scams unfold, and gain an understanding of the victims' emotional journey throughout a scam, we partnered with a number of charities like "Catch the Catfish," "LoveSaid," and "ScamHatersUnited," who are relentlessly working towards spreading awareness about romance scams and supporting victims in redressal.

"HourGlass," which is an elderly charity, helped us unfold the challenges faced by the older population in navigating their journey in the rapidly digitalising world.

context

Romance scams occur when a fraudster adopts a fake online identity to gain a victim’s affection and trust. 
The scammer then uses the illusion of a romantic or close relationship to manipulate and steal from the victim.


1. Individuals’ actual and situational vulnerabilities are exploited by scammers using grooming and social engineering tactics

  • Actual and situational vulnerabilities like being Widowed, divorced, loveless relationships, negative past relationships, distance from family and community drive people into loneliness.
  • Grooming and social engineering tactics include Love bombing, gas lighting, blame-shifting, trauma bonding, alienation, coercive control, reciprocity, etc.

2. Increased access to emerging technologies and sophisticated tools makes it easier for scammers to conceal their identity & gain trust of their target

  • Easy access to emerging technologies and tools adopted by scammers leads to an increase in the number of fake profiles and fraudulent attempts.
  • Sophisticated tools enable scammers to create convincing profiles, build relationships and gain trust further making it challenging for individuals to distinguish and identify them.

3. Following a scam, individuals often struggle to acknowledge it due to betrayal blindness and fear of abandonment and they blame themselves for being too trusting, experiencing feelings of shame

  • Betray Blindness, Fear of Abandonment and Denial prevent people from accepting and sharing their experience, decreasing the chances of external interventions and support.
  • The emotional toll including the feelings of shame, self-blame, self-hate, abuse of trust and loss of confidence exceed the financial impact when having experienced a romance scam.

Discovery and Insights


INSIGHT 01 / Social Media & Dating Apps


Lack of strong verification mechanisms and low accountability in terms of user protection allow fraudsters to use social networking platforms as channels for finding their targets.

  • Some famous dating platforms like Hinge and Bumble are preferred by people as they are perceived to be safer and less overwhelming.
  • Social networking platforms especially like Facebook take limited action on reported profiles, fake accounts and have a broken feedback loop.
  • Greater number of profiles on these platforms increase their total number of active users which increases their revenue.


INSIGHT 02 / People

People often overestimate their ability to avoid romance scams, believing that their awareness, instincts, and intelligence will help them detect red flags when meeting strangers online

  • People protect themselves online by watching for cues like profile bios, images, discussions about crypto, investments, or money, and requests to communicate outside the platform.


INSIGHT 03 / Reporting & Redressal


Lack of serious action and accountability from official authorities in the absence of evidence and regulatory enforcement

  • Lack of Streamlined Processes and the Police not taking on up reports seriously serve as major barriers to victims seeking support
  • Contingent Reimbursement Model (Which + City of London Police) mandating Banks to provide redressal to victims
  • Online Safety Bill, attempting to safeguard people online


INSIGHT 04 / Gendered Tactics

Conditioning and Shame
Gendered Preferences in Experiences and Approaching Tactics

  • When approached by scammers, women are targeted using romance, appreciation and attention. Whereas men are targeted using sexual and fantasy-based offers.
  • Women are more open to sharing their experiences and seeking support as compared to men

Problem definition

Low barriers at various checkpoints 
on dating and social networking platforms, when combined with easy 
access to sophisticated technologies, increase the likelihood of the elderly getting victimised by romance scams.


How might we increase the barriers for scammers to reach and defraud the elderly by making dating and social networking platforms more secure to provide a safer online dating and communication experience?

opportunities

What problems can we solve for Dating and Social Media Channels for them to see value in adopting the Service?


Pain Points of Dating Platforms

  • Stricter verification processes may create friction and compromise user experience
  • Privacy issues and user hesitation in sharing personal information
  • Advanced technology and staff involvement make it costly and resource intensive
  • Adaptability/Proficiency of scammers
  • Verification processes must comply to regional data protection laws and regulations
  • Taking down profile would reduce the number of users of the platform
  • Fraudulent profiles exist across various channels, taking them down from one particular platform may not be sufficient


Additional Pain Points of Social Media Platforms

  • Handling a larger user base, so the solution needs to function at scale
  • In addition to fake profiles, a number of fake communities exist on social media channels which are a gateway for fraudsters to reach people
  • On social media channels, a number of users create multiple profiles taking on different personas for anonymity and freedom, making authenticity checks more complex.

SERVICE OFFERINGS

1. Robust Verification Process:

Implementing advanced user authentication protocols to verify identities such as government ID verification, facial recognition and social media history, ensuring that all users are genuine and reducing the risk of fraudulent activity on dating sites and social media platforms


2. Cross Platform Intelligence:

Leveraging cross platform data sharing to improve scam prevention, allowing for a comprehensive approach to identifying and mitigating romance scam profiles across different online spaces


3. Proactive Protection:

Through our proactive industry collaborations with regulatory bodies, cybersecurity organisations and charities, we minimise scam exposure, especially for older individuals, through advanced reporting and safety measures

SPECIAL
THANKS

We would like to thank our tutor, Federico Vaz, for his exceptional support, guidance towards the right direction, and expert feedback in times of doubt. Additionally, Kam Chana was an expert for our project. Her valuable feedback and thought-provoking questions helped us think beyond the obvious and explore new directions.

Furthermore, this project would not have been executed to its full capacity without the support and resources provided by Ruth Grover from Scam Haters United and Anna Rowe from Catch the Catfish and we are extremely thankful to partner with them for our project.

Team