The bitter truth about how fraudsters dupe online daters in this new twist on romance fraud
The world is a confusing and lonely place sometimes. Police and security experts have been out in force for years warning lonely hearts not to fall for the romance fraudsters whose schemes cost victims more than US$950 million in 2021 alone.
But have you heard of sugar daddy, or sugar momma, scams? These are designed to exploit a fast-growing niche in the online dating world: that of young people looking for someone to subsidise their studies or lifestyles in return for companionship – one leading website for such ‘sugaring’ reportedly has more than 38 million members around the world, including half a million students in the UK alone.
British bank NatWest identified more than 40 female students who fell victim to sugar daddy scammers in the UK last summer alone, noting that the actual number of victims is likely much higher. Indeed, as is the case with ‘mainstream’ romance scams, the real number of victims is impossible to tell, as many of them are too embarrassed or traumatized to report their experience.
RELATED READING: 5 common scams targeting teens – and how to stay safe
In a world where many people have lost their jobs during the pandemic and where a lot of young people struggle to fund their studies with low-paid work and mounting student debts, the prospect of meeting a rich benefactor is an increasingly attractive one. However, this comes loaded with risk.
A quick search on Twitter reveals the ubiquity of such scams also on social media. Many young women post on these sites, even if perhaps jokingly, to declare that they’re on the hunt for a sugar daddy. In addition, fake offers for such “help” often come unsolicited on Instagram, Twitter or other social media sites. Others may use dedicated sugar daddy sites to target individuals of both sexes, knowing that they will have a larger pool of potential victims who may be more willing to believe their story.
What are sugar daddy or sugar momma scams, anyway?
There are various ways a sugar daddy scam can work, but it all results in the same depressing outcome for the victim, who is left deflated, humiliated, angry and out-of-pocket. Put simply, fake sugar daddies or mommas pose as rich benefactors who offer money to cash-strapped people in return for prospects of companionship or other favors.
But there’s a catch very soon. After building a rapport online and gaining their victim’s trust, the fraudster may offer to pay off their debts as a show of sincerity. Of course, this requires the victim to hand over their bank and/or card details.
The scammer might then:
- Explain that they have had problems depositing into the victim’s account. They request the victim pay a small sum in order to ‘validate’ the transaction. The scammer then disappears once this sum has been paid, usually in non-traceable gift cards.
- Pay off the victim’s debts using a stolen credit card. But they then claim to have paid too much and request a small amount back.
In other variations on the same theme, some fraudsters say they’ll set up a new credit card which the victim can use. However, in reality, they register the card in the victim’s name, run up a huge debt and then disappear. In one case, a scammer transferred the victim money using the new card’s overdraft facility, and then persuaded her to put it in a high interest savings account. In reality, that account was under the scammer’s control.
Worse still, many sextortionists may go to sugar daddy sites to find victims, which is when things can ultimately get even far uglier. One UK man was recently sentenced to 32 years behind bars after he persuaded his victims, many of whom he found on sugar daddy websites, to take compromising photos of themselves or performing lewd acts on camera. The sextortionist then blackmailed his victims, including many children, and even sold some of the images online.
Is that sugar daddy fake?
Fortunately, there are several ways to spot the tell-tale signs of a sugar daddy scammer. If you’re on a dating or social media site, be aware that fraudsters may:
- ask the victim to DM them, in order to appear less predatory, possibly using multiple user accounts or accounts they created only recently
- like ‘mainstream’ romance fraudsters, they quickly attempt to take the conversation onto ‘unpoliced’ communications platforms like Google Hangouts or WhatsApp
- ask the mark to share their bank and/or card details so they can deposit money into their account
- offer to pay off the victim’s debts or credit card balances or buy expensive gifts for them, possibly in return for their sensitive photos
- ask for a ‘small’ upfront payment, possibly in Bitcoin, first as some sort of proof of loyalty, often creating a sense of urgency in the process
Staying safe from sugar daddy scammers
There are some more general things you can do to insulate yourself or your friends and family from the risks of sugar daddy scams. They include the following:
- Look out for fake photos on dating and other sites, as it’s all too easy to steal other people’s photos online. Use a reverse image search of profile pictures to spot scams.
- Before replying to a possible sugar daddy on social media, check their profile for some of the above tell-tale signs of a scammer.
- There’s no such thing as free money: be suspicious of anyone claiming to offer it.
- Never give out your personal information or bank details to someone you have met online or don’t know well.
- If someone says they can’t transfer you money until you pay them, leave the conversation immediately. That’s not how banks authenticate transactions.
Romance scammers are out in ever greater numbers. Stay alert. And if you think a family member of friend may be on the lookout for a sugar daddy, share this article.
by Phil Muncaster, ESET