Crypto Romance Scams: Don't Fall for These Dating App Swindlers

Con artists preying on people looking for love is nothing new, but the latest scams have moved on from asking you to buy gift cards to an array of crypto scams.
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Ekin Genç has written for Bloomberg Businessweek, EUobserver, Motherboard, and Decrypt.

The popular Netflix show, "Tinder Swindler," didn’t feature any crypto scams. But its charismatic lead, Simon Leviev, could do perfectly well as a crypto dating scammer – all it takes is some trust building, promises of lucrative crypto gains and gullibility that many of us are prone to.

Indeed, scamming daters out of their crypto has become something of a cottage industry. Romance scammers conned victims out of $139 million worth of cryptocurrency last year, according to a February 2022 report from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

Crypto romance scammers don’t just target those who are actively looking to date through apps like Tinder, Bumble and Hinge. They may message you on Instagram, or even WhatsApp, and pretend it was by mistake, as a screenshot of what later turned out to be a crypto dating scam shared with CoinDesk shows below.

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Scammer text message (CoinDesk)

As these sinister tactics become more and more popular, it’s helpful to be aware of red flags and remain vigilant.

It may not strike you as an obvious scam

Unlike the so-called Nigerian prince scams, where a stranger emails you with an offer of money, crypto dating scams aren’t obvious at first. Research shows that Nigerian prince scammers consciously make their scams glaringly obvious to filter out anyone who wouldn’t fall for it anyways. Crypto dating scammers invest a lot of time in their victims, maintaining a relationship until they feel that trust has been established, and the victim is ready to be exploited.

The majority of crypto dating scams follow the pattern called "pig butchering," or “sha zhu pan” (杀猪盘) in Chinese – so-called because scammers continuously flatter and make their victim feel good before conning them, just like a farmer fattens a pig before slaughter.

In many reported cases, scammers spend weeks or months in a relationship before bringing up crypto and the potential it offers. Anyone who uses the web is at risk of crypto scams – not just those who have crypto investments. In fact, scammers put a lot of effort into walking you through your first crypto purchase through legitimate exchanges like Coinbase or Binance, as the screenshot shared with CoinDesk shows below. Things only go downhill from there.

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Scammer text message 2 (CoinDesk)

This type of psychological manipulation is called “social engineering,” and socially engineered crypto scams even target tech-savvy founders of crypto projects.

Not as simple as “don’t send crypto”

Before crypto became the main vehicle of choice for pig butcherers, scammers convinced victims to buy online gift cards. These cards offered less consumer protection than cash transfers – perfect for scammers. Then crypto came, with its promise of self-custody and little to no customer protection – even better!

Some scams are as simple as being tricked into sending crypto to strangers who have built trust with their victims. The old advice of not sending gift cards to online strangers also applies to crypto.

But there are other ways of scamming that don’t even involve the victim directly sending crypto to the scammer.

Lucrative investments through your own account

The Global Anti-Scam Organization maintains a long list of scam websites commonly used in pig butchering, many involving crypto. It’s likely the scammer will have you set up an account with one of these sites controlled by their fellow crooks, giving you a false sense of security because the sites feel real.

Scammers may also tell you about lucrative returns through “liquidity pools” or “liquidity mining” in decentralized finance, or DeFi, as the screenshot below shared with CoinDesk shows. They want to help you achieve the same returns, and they’ll only tell you where to invest.

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Crypto wallet scam (CoinDesk)

But the scam can also take place on a legitimate crypto site, like decentralized exchange Uniswap.

Under the guidance of your scammer, you may end up investing your funds into coins controlled by scammers. According to a November 2021 study, 50% of all token listings on Uniswap are fake (not necessarily linked with romance scams, of course), so the odds aren’t in your favor when it comes to investing in projects recommended by online strangers. Some of these scam listings even have the same name as major cryptocurrencies – just different smart contracts. Scammers will later dry up the liquidity in the pool you invested in, leaving you with worthless tokens.

Don’t sign unfamiliar contracts with your crypto wallet

In a more advanced form, scammers may help you move crypto from your centralized exchange account, like Coinbase, onto Ethereum through the use of a crypto wallet like MetaMask.

Crypto wallets are a relatively novel technology, and they aren’t the most user-friendly applications suitable to beginners. They won’t show what you’re about to sign in human-readable language, let alone alert you to red flags.

Once you have your crypto on-chain, you’re at risk of getting funds swindled out of your addresses if you sign a malicious contract through your wallet. Approach links you’re sent prompting you to approve through MetaMask with caution - especially when they come from affectionate online strangers who won’t show their face.

Run your due diligence

Victims of crypto dating scams consistently report that their online partner refuses to meet them in person or video call them because they’re shy, and they aren’t ready yet.

In reality, it’s because scammers use photos of other people to create realistic online profiles. Performing a reverse image search of those photos can help you confirm the identity of the person. To do so, download the photo/s of the suspected scammer and try Google’s reverse image search, or TinEye – you can upload the photo and use the camera icon on Google or the upload button on TinEye to search by that image.

If no match comes up, that doesn’t necessarily mean the pictures really belong to that person – the photos could also be harvested from a private social media profile that the scammer had access to.

But some scammers are too clued up to use real people’s photos. They may also use AI-generated photos of humans that don’t exist – just as one scammy crypto project developer did.

As hard as it may be to not trust your heart when you’re looking for love, it’s important to remain vigilant and skeptical, especially if money enters the conversation with anyone you’ve met online, or you’ll not only end up heartbroken, but plain old broke, too.

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This article was originally published on Mar 8, 2022 at 3:45 p.m. UTC

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Ekin Genç has written for Bloomberg Businessweek, EUobserver, Motherboard, and Decrypt.

CoinDesk - Unknown

Ekin Genç has written for Bloomberg Businessweek, EUobserver, Motherboard, and Decrypt.

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