Research reveals scammers’ tactics – and how to defend against them

In the Netflix documentary “The Tinder Swindler,” victims exposed notorious con artist Simon Leviev, who posed as a wealthy diamond mogul on the popular dating app Tinder to deceive and scam numerous women out of millions of dollars. Leviev is a flashy example of a dating scammer, but criminal operations also prey on emotionally vulnerable people to gain their trust and exploit them financially.

The internet has revolutionized dating, and there has been a surge in U.S. adults using apps to find ideal matches post-pandemic. While these apps offer convenience for connecting with romantic partners, they also open the door to online romance scams. Criminals create both deceptive profiles and urgent scenarios to carry out the scam.

The Federal Trade Commission reports that nearly 70,000 Americans fell victim to online romantic scams in 2022, with reported losses topping US$1.3 billion.

Online romance scams exploit people through calculated online social engineering and deliberately deceptive communication tactics. In a series of research projects, my colleagues from Georgia State University, University of Alabama, University of South Florida and I focused on understanding how scammers operate, the cues that may prompt changes in their tactics and what measures people can take to defend themselves against falling victim to this scam.

Simon Leviev, the ‘Tinder Swindler,’ conned several women by posing as a diamond mogul.

How online romantic scams work

Online romance scams are not coincidental. They’re carefully planned schemes that follow distinct stages. Research has identified five stages:

Baiting victims with attractive profiles.
Grooming victims with intimacy.
Creating crises to extract money.
On occasion manipulating victims with blackmail.
Revealing the scam.

In short, scammers do not swindle victims by chance. They plan their actions in advance, patiently following their playbooks to ensure profitable outcomes. Scammers worm their way into a victim’s heart to gain access to their money through false pretenses.

In a previous study, my colleague Volkan Topalli and I analyzed victim testimonials from the website Our research revealed scammers’ use of various social engineering techniques and crisis stories to prompt urgent requests. Scammers leveraged social norms, guilt and supposed emergencies to manipulate victims. Scammers also paid close attention to communication patterns and adapted their tactics based on victims’ responses. This interplay significantly influenced the overall operation of the scam.

Across the globe, online romance scammers use different techniques that vary across cultures to successfully defraud victims. In my recent research, for example, I looked closely into an online romance scam in China called “Sha Zhu Pan,” which loosely translates to “Pig Butchering Scam.” In Sha Zhu Pan,…

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