Silicon Beach: Tech Keeps Scammers Out of Your Heart and Wallet

Categories: Silicon Beach
internet_scam.jpg
Photo via Don Hankins' Flickr
The iDate 2010 conference descended on Miami Beach last month with trade professionals talking shop about the business of running dating sites. One of the topics that intrigued Silicon Beach was protection against scammers. How do you know if the person behind that profile is for real?

Last year, a local friend of mine received emails from three different women in England who had Googled his name after they realized the man courting them online was too good to be true. It turns out a fraud had adopted my friend's identity from information that was readily available on his blog and online social networks.

Identity theft at this level is ridiculously easy. For every vulnerable sucker who's just looking for love, there's a scumbag willing to play mind games for money using someone else's photographs and personal history.

How is technology helping those who aren't keen enough to smell something fishy? After the iDate conference, Silicon Beach caught up with Max Anhoury, VP of sales and marketing at Iovation, for an answer. Iovation is a pioneer in managing online fraud and abuse. It's like a bouncer -- good at catching douchebags before they get in the door.

Dating site imposters come from all over the world, according to Anhoury, but there's a significant number from Russia, Nigeria, the Congo, and the Ivory Coast.

"The fraudsters posts a profile, usually to attract women," Anhoury says. "They build confidence. They'll use a stolen credit card to upgrade their membership level. They'll use the same card to send flowers or jewelry. And then typically there's a story about how they've been abandoned and need money wired."

In some cases, the process of emotional manipulation can take weeks. Fraudsters are expert con artists, telling would-be victims exactly what they want to hear. "Their profiles are wildly misrepresented," he explains. "They will pick the looks and attributes of whatever the victim is most interested in seeing."

But it's not just one victim, and that's how they get nabbed. By examining devices -- the computers from which fraudsters generate profiles -- Iovation can detect when something is amiss. "Fraudsters create many profiles and use them to attract potential victims," Anhoury says. "And these profiles have one common denominator in that process: the computer on which they were initiated."

Put simply, Iovation can help a dating site by recognizing and re-identifying a suspect computer, but it isn't exactly Big Brother. Iovation's technology doesn't mine these computers for personal information. Anhoury doesn't divulge exactly how they do it, but he assures that their techniques rely on information about devices that is publicly available. "It's more than just tracking IP addresses," he explains. "It's IP on steroids."

Once a computer is re-identified, the same schmuck who is trying to get money out of a lonely heart somewhere might have a difficult time pulling a scam elsewhere online. Iovation also works with other industries, such as e-retail and financial services. "When we receive suspect devices," Anhoury says, "it basically means 'I don't want to do business with this computer anymore,' and all our online communities can leverage that information. We look at well over a billion transactions a year and have a quarter of a billion devices on our database."

Scammers are wily, of course; it's big business and they have many tricks up their sleeves to dodge fraud detection. But Anhoury claims technology is always one step ahead. The statistics for dating sites alone are staggering: "In the last 90 days, we have identified 67,588 different instances of spam, over 30,000 scams and solicitations, over 13,000 profile misrepresentations, and over 5,000 cases of identity mining and phishing."

Identity mining is yet another reason to be paranoid. It isn't just about somebody tricking your vulnerable heart into sending money. You never know if the person wooing you online is searching for personal information about your family, preferences, or past that could potentially help him or her hack a bank account. That hot girl you're chatting with could be a fat criminal slob in a boiler room.

To protect the efficiency of fraud detection, Anhoury can't divulge which dating sites are clients, but he does mention that Iovation works with many customers, including leading international online dating services.

Paranoid much? Fancy technology alone is just one part of staying safe. Would-be lovers seeking relationships online can also protect themselves. Anhoury suggests keeping an eye out for these red flags: 
  1. The pace of the relationship is going too fast without answers to tough questions.
  2. Somebody wants to take you outside of the community infrastructure too quickly. For example, moving onto Gmail instead of chatting within the site.
  3. Uncomfortable questions that might not be relevant to the relationship.
  4. Anything to do with cash.
Keep up with more online fraud detection news at Iovation's blog.
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