Lured by Love: unveiling the surge in Valentine’s Day romance scams

Online dating in South Africa is experiencing a surge in popularity Photographer: Armand Hough/ Independent Newspapers

Online dating in South Africa is experiencing a surge in popularity Photographer: Armand Hough/ Independent Newspapers

Published Feb 14, 2024


February is well known as the month of love, with millions of people cross the world celebrating Valentine’s Day with their significant others, and while the rest may be looking to be struck by Cupid’s arrow, insidious scammers have their sights set on lovesick victims.

This comes as online dating in South Africa is experiencing a surge in popularity, with a growing number of individuals seeking connections and companionship on digital platforms.

As more people venture into the virtual realm, a surge of scammers has also emerged, preying on the desire for connection and turning the quest for love into a dangerous game of financial deception.

This was according to the Financial Sector Conduct Authority (FSCA), which said Valentine’s Day was one of the most popular days for love and it brought with it not only the promise of love but also the threat of romance scams.

“Fraudsters use romance scams to exploit individuals emotionally and financially, often resulting in heartbreaking consequences. The online dating market in South Africa is predicted to witness a substantial growth in the number of users and revenue,” the FSCA said in a statement on Tuesday.

Statista reported that online dating revenue would reach $23.80 million (R450m) in 2024 and online dating sites would have 6.7 million users by 2028.

In a world buzzing with technology, online dating platforms offer a convenient gateway to find love. However, the same technology that brings people together also provides fertile ground for scammers seeking to exploit vulnerable hearts.

This Valentine's Day, it is important to arm yourself with knowledge to protect your emotional well-being and financial assets, the FSCA warned.

“First and foremost, it is essential to understand how romance scams operate. Fraudsters typically create fake profiles on dating websites, social media platforms or online forums to gain access to unsuspecting victims. Once they gain access to their targets, they establish connections and trust by showering potential victims with affection, compliments and promises of lasting love. Some fraudsters even shower their targets with flashy gifts and money.” the FSCA said.

Early into the perceived relationship, scammers often fabricate stories of hardship or financial distress to gain sympathy and manipulate their victims into providing them with money or personal information. This is done to play on their target’s emotions, get money out of them or steal a person’s identity.

In 2023, eNCA released a special report on the increasing prevalence of unsuspecting women getting caught in romance scams and losing their life savings. Jeanette van Rooy, one of the women who fell victim to a romance scam said that she lost more than R1 million to a scammer who promised to pay the money back.

A survey commissioned by cybersecurity and anti-virus provider, Kaspersky, revealed shocking data about the extent of digital abuse.

The results showed that almost a quarter of respondents (23%) had experienced some form of online stalking from a person they were newly dating.

A third (34%) of respondents believe that Googling/checking social media accounts of a person you had started dating as a form of due diligence is acceptable and 41% admitted to doing so when they started dating someone.

Kaspersky told “Business Report” that people were vulnerable to an alarming rise in stalking and abuse this Valentine’s Day from risks posed by location settings, data privacy and more broadly, oversharing.

David Emm, the principal security researcher at Kaspersky, said: “The Internet of Things, or connected world, is brilliant and offers a myriad possibilities. But with opportunity comes threats and one of those threats of a connected world is the ease of access to traceable data which leaves us vulnerable to abuse.”

“Whilst the blame for these horrific behaviours never lies with stalking victims, unfortunately there is still a burden upon them to take steps to minimise risks. I think it’s great that people are taking steps to verify identities online, but would encourage people to just stop and do a quick sense check on any information, passwords or data they share, to just think through how that information could be used in nefarious hands,” Emm said.

Emma Pickering, the head of Technology-Facilitated Abuse and Economic Empowerment, Refuge, said: “Navigating online dating and virtual spaces can be challenging and it's crucial for social media and dating apps to implement verification processes, which can help confirm that users’ profiles match their actual photos.

“To my knowledge, Bumble is the only dating app currently using this level of verification. I would love to see others adopting similar safety measures.

“Additionally, safety guides and resources should be readily accessible online in multiple languages, ensuring that vulnerable individuals have the necessary support without needing to register for an app.”