Valentine’s Day is just around the corner and with many setting out on a quest for love for the special occasion, experts are urging Canadians to beware of an increased number of technology scams that could get in the way of relationships.
“Hackers are usually focused on the times of year when we’re most vulnerable,” Robert Falzon, head of engineering at cybersecurity provider Checkpoint Canada, told Global News from Calgary, Alberta.
Valentine’s Day is one such “great option for scammers,” Falzon said.
Romance scams and catfishing have flourished for a long time, especially with the advancement of technology, according to Briana Brownell, CEO and founder of artificial intelligence (AI) consultancy Pure Strategies, but the issue grew when Artificial Intelligence (AI) started taking centre-stage.
The biggest challenge, said Brownell, is making sure you’re safe from scammers posing as someone they’re not.
“What’s new now is that the technology is making scams harder and harder to spot and more and more convincing, and there’s the ability for scammers to do it at a much larger scale than they could before,” Brownell told Global News from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
According to an alert issued this month by the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre (CAFC), romance scams were responsible for the second highest amount of fraud-related dollar-loss last year.
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“These scammers are using advanced methods to appear legitimate and trick people into trusting them,” the alert from the CAFC said.
In 2021, of the 1,249 complaints of romance scams made to the CAFC, 925 victims reported a total of more than $50 million lost, according to a report from the RCMP. Last year, $32,000 related to romance fraud was successfully frozen by the CAFC.
A recent uptick in romance scams has also been observed by the Better Business Bureau (BBB).
Across North America in 2021, BBB saw a 13 per cent increase in this type of scam from the year before. In the first two months of 2022, the number of reported romance scam cases more than doubled compared to the same period in 2021.
“With Valentine’s Day around the corner and the pandemic still a part of our lives,” the BBB in a report last month, encouraged “those looking for love to be wary of fraudsters. Don’t let your quest for love blind you to the realities of romance scams.”
Fake profiles, fake voices
Scammers, these days, are not only able to create fake profile pictures on dating applications, but they’re also able to fabricate voices and automate messages, according to Brownell.
“With AI, it basically means that it’s getting easier and easier to create fake pictures, even to have a fake voice and be able to automate the conversations that you’re having with somebody through dating apps,” she said.
According to a 2021 report from dating website eharmony, 36 per cent of Canadians use online dating.
Over 300 million people use dating apps worldwide, with about 20 million paying for premium features, a Business of Apps report published last month showed.
Although there have been a number of tools throughout the existence of AI — for example, generative adversarial networks that create realistic images of people — Brownell said technology has now “gotten even better” and so have scams.
“People are able to essentially take profile pictures and basically create selfies and images of people that don’t actually exist,” she said.
The development specifically in image generation has made these scams even harder to spot, according to Brownell.
“It’s actually pretty difficult because the technology is advancing,” she said. “The challenge is that it’s hard to tell and technology is getting really, really good.”
Scammers have also been known to use technology like AI chat bot ChatGPT to automate conversations on dating apps, Brownell said.
They can also create “bots” to have automated conversations with numerous victims at the same time, she said.
“The technology to actually run hundreds or thousands or millions of these scams at the same time is suddenly available,” Brownell said.
Last month, the beta phase of ElevenLabs’ voice synthesis platform, which allowed users to generate realistic audio of any person’s voice by uploading a few minutes of audio samples and typing in text for it to say, was released.
Soon after it dropped, fake videos began emerging online. There were clips of U.S. President Joe Biden delivering a speech attacking transgender people, Bill Gates supposedly saying COVID-19 vaccines caused AIDS and actress Emma Watson reading Hitler’s manifesto — none of which were real. But they still were widely shared.
Romance, crypto and the internet
An increased number of cryptocurrency investment rackets linked to romance scams have also been identified by the CAFC. Such scams are more common in virtual relationships where a scammer tries to get someone to invest in cryptocurrency and ends up stealing money or personal information, according to the CAFC.
Looking at the history of AI, “it’s actually really entangled with this idea of deception,” said Katrina Ingram, CEO of Ethically Aligned AI, a social enterprise that launched in 2021 committed to consulting and educating companies on artificial intelligence.
“Though recently what we’re seeing is some super sophisticated abilities that these systems use to remix words and remix images in ways that might seem like they represent content coming from a human,” she told Global News from Edmonton, Alberta, pointing to image generators like DALL-E and LensaAI.
“And of course, if you have someone that doesn’t have good intentions, they’ll actually want to deceive you some way using these tools. It’s arming them with more abilities to create a really convincing, deceptive presence on the internet.”
One of the most well-known romance scams was televised on Netflix last year. Called the “The Tinder Swindler”, the documentary followed the story of Simon Leviev — real name Shimon Hayat — as he conned women he met on the dating app Tinder. The documentary landed on Netflix’s Global top 10 list of the most-watched TV shows and films.
Leviev fabricated numerous personal crises that required his victims’ financial help. Some took out loans and signed up for credit cards to help him, leaving them financially responsible for his debts.
Besides being on the lookout for such scammers on dating apps, Falzon is also cautioning Canadians to keep an eye on their email inbox for phishing scams as Valentine’s Day approaches.
“Hackers in the old days used to be really terrible at grammar and spelling,” he said. “Using the assistance of artificial intelligence and automating tools, they’re getting much better… and these emails are much harder to discern from real emails that you might receive.”
According to the Better Business Bureau, one should also never send money or personal information to someone they’ve never met in person.
Instead, they recommended cutting contact with someone who asks for credit card information or bank or government ID numbers.
'You probably don't have a secret admirer'
“The number one thing I would say is that you probably don’t have a secret admirer,” said Falzon.
As it gets more complicated to spot scammers, using protection on your computer and mobile device is crucial, he said.
“There’re a lot of tools available,” he said, noting Checkpoint’s ZoneAlarm antivirus software as an example.
According to Brownell, the techniques used by scammers are mostly “well-known,” and many are still using older methods, but technology has certainly enabled them.
“Technology is an enabler for people to perpetrate (crimes) on a larger scale but the kinds of things that they’re doing in order to orchestrate the scams are well known already,” she said.
A common “red flag” is the intimacy level of conversation. If it escalates quickly, it is a concern, according to Brownell.
“Building a really emotional component to it really quickly,” she said.
Brownell is also urging online daters to be “skeptical about the context and especially if someone is trying to scare you or they’re trying to threaten you.”
Other red flags to be mindful of, according to the CAFC, is if the person wants to quickly move to a private or different mode of conversation, like Whatsapp, or if they have an excuse not to meet in person.
— With files from Reuters and The Associated Press