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Cupid's Con: How Lovebirds Get Tricked into Becoming Money Mules

March 7, 2024
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In our digital world many people opt to use dating platforms in an attempt to find a life partner. Oftentimes, these platforms attract lonely individuals, and this loneliness can leave them susceptible to being tricked into committing serious crimes.  


Romance scams, where scammers trick victims into giving scammers money, are, for the most part, commonly known. What isn’t widely known is that these same scam tactics can trick victims into becoming money mules.


A money mule is someone who transfers or moves illegally acquired goods or money on behalf of someone else (i.e., criminals). Money can be transferred as cash, deposited into an account, transferred using virtual currencies, and transferred using anything that can maintain monetary value.


The Better Business Bureau has increasingly been receiving consumer reports of money mule romance scams. These scams can range from victims receiving cash in the mail with instructions to give the cash to someone else, receiving Amazon packages (paid with stolen or fraudulent card details) that are subsequently sent to a scammer or accomplice, and in extreme cases, victims can be encouraged to travel abroad to meet their “lover”, simply to find out they must pick up a bag of ‘clothing’ when they arrive that is lined with contraband or cash unbeknownst to them, and then instructed to meet the scammer or an accomplice elsewhere. People are increasingly being tricked into being accomplices in criminal activity, and dating platforms are allowing an opportunity for scammers to connect with victims. 


In 2014, an 81-year-old woman met a romance scammer online and proceeded to develop a relationship with him. The scammer establishes a deep emotional connection with the woman and begins asking her for money. The scammer claimed that the money was for his business and that he needed the money to leave Nigeria to live with her in the U.S. This situation was a typical romance scam, but when the woman could not provide the scammer any more money, the scammer proceeded to send her cellphones to pawn for more money, and instructed her to open personal and business bank accounts that the scammer used. Law enforcement caught wind of this and warned her repeatedly to stop aiding this scammer over a period of 5 years. The lady refused to stop due to her “love” for the scammer, and eventually, charges were laid against her. She pleaded guilty to two federal felonies relating to money muling charges.


Dating platforms must protect their users and themselves from providing a medium for scammers to connect with prospective victims. No one wants to enable these kinds of activities, and law enforcement is increasingly becoming aware of money laundering taking place on dating platforms.


Dating platforms should provide clear guidance on identifying potential scam scenarios to protect users and avoid reputational damage. Effective identity verification controls, checking for a mismatch in a stated location versus IP address location, and network analytics assessing the relationships of both scammer and victim accounts can provide useful signals for monitoring these activities. Ultimately, detecting money mule romance scams requires technology, human intuition, and a good sense of scammer tactics. 

Written by Edward Hale, Associate, StrategyBRIX
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