Blackmailers target UAE's lonely hearts ahead of Valentine's Day
DUBAI // Lonely hearts who look online for romance in the run-up to Valentine's Day could fall prey to confidence tricksters, a security company has warned.
Online dating scams, or 'catfish scams' are increasingly common in the Western world, and are now starting to make an appearance in the region.
Experts from an online security company in Dubai, Whispering Bell, believe there may be an increasing trend. The company has dealt with ten cases so far in February, and three cases in as many months before that.
"Instead of focusing on people's greed, they focus on their vanity," said David Michaux, director of the company.
"They tend to target people in this part of the world who are living away from their families, or living alone."
The scams start with a basic introduction on email or through Facebook, whereby a man is contacted by an attractive woman who compliments them on their profile picture.
It then proceeds to a chat box, and then telephone. "There's normally a very flirtatious person on the other end," said Mr Michaux. "The conversation goes on for one to two weeks, and during this time it's 'send me some pictures and I'll send you some too'.
"Gradually the pictures become a lot more flirtatious too."
Then suddenly, the victim will receive a ransom note, demanding a large sum of money. If they fail to pay, all of the compromising pictures of themselves they sent to the online lover will be uploaded to the victim's own Facebook page.
"On a couple of occasions when we've been involved in these cases and trying to help people, some people have not paid," said Mr Michaux.
"On two occasions that I'm aware of, they logged into that person's Facebook account to change the username and password and uploaded all the pictures to the account, so all their friends could see.
"The person couldn't access their Facebook account, and it took three days for those pictures to be taken down by Facebook."
The scam is common enough for the US-based Internet Crime Complaints Centre - an organisation part-operated by the FBI - to issue a notice last October warning people about it.
The scam, which is described as a new trend, "baits individuals into intimate online conversations and then extorting them for financial gain", the Centre said.
Last month, it emerged that Manti Te'o, an American football linebacker, had been involved in an online relationship with a man posing as a woman.
Dr Fadi Aloul, an associate professor of computer science at the American University of Sharjah, said that people within the region were especially susceptible.
"This is a style of attack that has been around for a while, but it's new to this region," he said. "People are definitely more trusting here, so if they get an email they would read it carefully and respond."
A key mechanism of the scams is what's known as 'drive-by downloads', where an email contains a link which directs users toward a site that automatically downloads a Trojan onto their computer.
The link could appear like it would lead to Yahoo chat, or even a BBC news article, but it would contain subtle spelling errors. Victims wouldn't be aware they had even installed malware onto their computer, as the infected site would automatically defer them back to a legitimate site.
Mr Michaux declined to name the people who have been affected in the region, but said it had a massive effect on their lives.
"Sometimes they've had to leave the country, or their wives have threatened to leave them," he said. "It all comes down to a lack of awareness."