Virtually every aspect of cybercrime has been made into a service or plug-and-play product. That includes dating scams — among the oldest and most common of online swindles. Recently, I had a chance to review a package of dating scam emails, instructions, pictures, videos and love letter templates that are sold to scammers in the underground, and was struck by how commoditized this type of fraud has become.
The dating scam package is assembled for and marketed to Russian-speaking hackers, with hundreds of email templates written in English and a variety of European languages. Many of the sample emails read a bit like Mad Libs or choose-your-own-adventure texts, featuring decision templates that include advice for ultimately tricking the mark into wiring money to the scammer.
The romance scam package is designed for fraudsters who prey on lonely men via dating Web sites and small spam campaigns. The vendor of the fraud package advertises a guaranteed response rate of at least 1.2 percent, and states that customers who average 30 scam letters per day can expect to earn roughly $2,000 a week. The proprietor also claims that his method is more than 20% effective within three replies and over 60% effective after eight.
The dating scam package advises customers to stick to a tried-and-true approach. For instance, scammers are urged to include an email from the mother of the girl in the first 10 emails between the scammer and a target. The scammer often pretends to be a young woman in an isolated or desolate region of Russia who is desperate for a new life, and the email from the girl’s supposed mother is intended to add legitimacy to the scheme.
Then there are dozens of pre-fabricated excuses for not talking on the phone, an activity reserved for the final stretch of the scam when the fraudster typically pretends to be stranded at the airport or somewhere else en route to the target’s home town.
“Working with dozens of possible outcomes, they carefully lay out every possible response, including dealing with broke guys who fell in love online,” said Alex Holden, the security expert who intercepted the romance scam package. “If the mark doesn’t have money, the package contains advice for getting him credit, telling the customer to restate his love and discuss credit options.”
Interestingly, although Russia is considered by many to be among the most hostile countries toward homosexuals, the makers of this dating scam package also include advice and templates for targeting gay men.
Also included in the dating scam tutorial is a list of email addresses and pseudonyms favored by anti-scammer vigilantes who try to waste the scammers’ time and otherwise prevent them from conning real victims. In addition, the package bundles several photos and videos of attractive Russian women, some of whom are holding up blank signs onto which the scammer can later Photoshop whatever message he wants.
Holden said that an enterprising fraudster with the right programming skills or the funds to hire a coder could easily automate the scam using bots that are programmed to respond to emails from the targets with content-specific replies.
CALL CENTERS TO CLOSE THE DEAL
The romance scam package urges customers to send at least a dozen emails to establish a rapport and relationship before even mentioning the subject of traveling to meet the target. It is in this critical, final part of the scam that the fraudster is encouraged to take advantage of criminal call centers that staff women who can be hired to play the part of the damsel in distress.
“When you get down to the final stage, there has to be a crisis, some compelling reason why the target should you send the money,” said Holden, founder of Hold Security [full disclosure: Yours Truly is an uncompensated adviser to Holden’s company]. “Usually this is something like the girl is stranded at the airport or needs money to get a travel visa. There has to be some kind of distress situation for this person to be duped into wiring money, which can be anywhere between $200 and $2,000 on average.”
Crooked call centers like the one pictured in the screen shot above employ male and female con artists who speak a variety of languages. When the call center employees are not being hired to close the deal on a romance scam, very often they are used to assist in bank account takeovers, redirecting packages with shipping companies, or handling fraudulent new credit applications that require phone verification.
Another reason that call centers aren’t used earlier in romance scams: Hiring one is expensive. The call center pictured above charges $10 per call, payable only in Bitcoin.
“If you imagine the cost of doing by phone every part of the scam, it’s rather high, so they do most of the scam via email,” Holden said. “What we tend to see with these dating scams is the scammer will tell the call center operator to be sure to mention special nicknames and to remind him of specific things they talked about in their email correspondence.”
Check back later this week for a more in-depth story about criminal call centers.