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The most costly scam is love, warns the FTC

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The need to give and receive love is unfortunately an extremely easy human weakness to exploit. Maybe you knew this, but if you didn’t, the Federal Trade Commission will be happy to point it out to you, right now, just before Valentine’s Day.

In a “Data Spotlight” published Tuesday, February 12, the FTC shared that romance-related scams are the most commonly reported type of consumer fraud in the United States, and growing every year. The FTC received reports of 21,000 romance scams in 2018, up from 8,500 in 2015. The financial consequences of these scams are also getting bigger, with reported losses quadrupling from $33 million in 2015 to $143 million in 2018. The “romance scam” category is only loosely defined, but the report focuses on situations in which one person pretends to be romantically interested in another in order to extract money from them.

The report explains the basics of catfishing — “Scammers lure people with phony online profiles, often lifting photos from the web to create attractive and convincing personas” — and says that it’s common not just on dating apps, but on social media sites that aren’t explicitly for dating. “For example, many people say the scam started with a Facebook message.”

According to the FTC, these scammers typically ask for money to be wired to them, or transferred via gift card. They come up with urgent-sounding reasons — like health problems or “some other misfortune” — or pretend to need the money in order to travel to meet up in person. “Scammers can reap large rewards for time spent courting their targets,” the report states ominously, before revealing that the median reported financial loss across age groups was $2,600, about seven times higher than the median loss for other types of fraud. For victims over 70, that number was $10,000.

This isn’t the first time the FTC has weighed in on online dating scams. Last May, the agency responded to frequent Freedom of Information Acts requests on the topic by releasing thousands of consumer complaints pertaining to Match.com, Tinder, PlentyofFish, Bumble, Grindr, and OkCupid, among others. These complaints were both about catfishing and allegedly deceptive business practices carried out by the sites themselves (e.g. paid subscriptions that were confusing and difficult to cancel). Match.com had the most complaints, which were sifted through by The Outline’s Drew Millard, who found one man that had sent $600,000 over the course of four months to a woman in Norway who said she wanted to marry him, as well as a woman who had sent $75,000 to a man who claimed he was a soldier stationed in Afghanistan.


Getty Images/iStockphoto

“These kinds of romance scams are very targeted social engineering attacks,” cybersecurity expert Nathan Wenzler told MarketWatch. They’re “effectively ‘hacking’ the victim’s emotions, rather than trying to perform a technical assault.”

The dating advice in the report is equally grim. The FTC — not an entity I had anticipated offering an opinion on my dating life — suggests that singles should never send money or gifts to “a sweetheart” they haven’t met in person, and that they should discuss all new love interests with friends or family so an impartial third party can analyze whether the person seems real. Also: reverse-image search the profile pictures of people you meet online to see if they’re associated with other people online, routinely quiz new love interests about the details of their lives to make sure everything adds up, and “learn more at ftc.gov/imposters.”

Still, remember that woman who fell for a catfishing scam and then later, by pure chance, ended up finding the person whose photos were stolen to catfish her with and they fell in love for real? That was nice.

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Vox Sentences: The pope will listen to survivors

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Vox Sentences is your daily digest for what’s happening in the world. Sign up for the Vox Sentences newsletter, delivered straight to your inbox Monday through Friday, or view the Vox Sentences archive for past editions.

The Vatican prepares to talk about the sexual abuse of minors; Australia is hit with a cyberattack.


“The Protection of Minors in the Church”


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  • The Vatican prepared Monday for a Thursday meeting called “The Protection of Minors in the Church,” which will address the long and destructive history of sexual abuse of children by officials of the church. Pope Francis and presidents from international bishops’ conferences will gather for four days to meet with abuse survivors and increase transparency. [NYT / Jason Horowitz and Elisabetta Povoledo]
  • Boston Archbishop Seán O’Malley, one of the few Americans who advise Pope Francis, says the church still lacks a procedure for how to deal with bishops accused of abuse. And addressing those wrongs is only complicated by the fact that most of the cases still waiting for justice occurred decades ago. [Atlantic / Emma Green]
  • The Vatican took decisive action over the weekend against a cleric it had long shielded: ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. The former archbishop of Washington became the highest-ranking American cardinal to be defrocked after he was found guilty of abusing minors. McCarrick was made cardinal in 2001, despite the church knowing of accusations against him. [Vox / Amanda Sakuma]
  • On the same day the summit starts, an explosive new book by a French journalist will be released, alleging that the Catholic Church is “one of the biggest gay communities in the world.” In the Closet of the Vatican could be the first reliable account of gay members of the clergy, which has some members of the church worried it could distract from the meeting’s goal: addressing the abuse of minors. [CNN / Daniel Burke]
  • Gay Catholic priests have long been terrified to come out, fearing repercussions from the church, which almost always controls a priest’s housing, health insurance, and retirement pension. The Times spoke to two dozen anonymously, who said the environment is only getting worse, with homosexuality increasingly being blamed for clergy abuse of young boys. [NYT / Elizabeth Dias]
  • Relations between the Vatican and US church leaders like O’Malley on abuse cases are becoming more and more tense. O’Malley was excluded from organizing this week’s summit on sex abuse, despite his top position on the commission for the protection of minors. The Vatican thinks American leadership is going too far — even in the practice of publishing accused clergy members’ names. [WSJ / Francis X. Rocca]

Australia reckons with a cyberattack

  • An unidentified foreign government is likely responsible for a hack of Australia’s major political parties and its parliament’s computer network, according to a statement by Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Monday. [NYT / Jamie Tarabay]
  • The Australian government was already investigating an attack on the parliament that occurred early February when it became aware, 10 days later, that the Liberal, Labor, and National parties had also been breached. [Al Jazeera]
  • Australia’s federal elections are coming up in May, but Morrison assured the country there had not been any electoral interference — even as the Australian Cyber Security Centre admitted it did not know what information had been stolen. [BBC News]
  • “A sophisticated state actor” is the culprit, according to Morrison, and many policy experts are pointing to China or Russia. The attack draws attention to the potential meddling (by at least one of those countries) in the 2016 US elections, and how this could be repeated. [TechCrunch / Jon Russell]
  • It’s also possible the responsible organization tried to mimic China to encourage Australian and foreign officials to point fingers. China has denied any role in the attack. [The Verge / Jon Porter]

Miscellaneous

  • Past presidents like Abraham Lincoln and George Washington have earned their place on national monuments — but history has shown that no president was a perfect leader. [NBC News / Ethan Sacks]
  • Public records about the Interior Department could be harder to access if a new rule the department has proposed is adopted. Under the rule, Interior would have more control over what information goes public and could limit how many documents one individual or an organization may view per month. [NPR / Nate Hegyi]
  • President Trump is expected to heighten support for Juan Guaidó as president of Venezuela on Monday. Pressure for President Nicolás Maduro to step down is mounting from the US, which has targeted sanctions against Venezuela’s valuable oil industry. [CNN / Jeremy Diamond]
  • Only one of the current Democratic presidential hopefuls is a heterosexual white man. Others may declare, but they all could have trouble accessing in-demand campaign talent and media attention — not to mention widespread support — as women and other minority candidates appeal to voters. [Politico / Bill Scher]
  • Millions of Nigerians were disappointed on Saturday when a last-minute decision delayed national presidential elections. Without an absentee voting system, many Nigerian citizens who had traveled or planned to travel to their home districts had to change plans when they found out they wouldn’t be voting. Nigeria’s current president, Muhammadu Buhari, is seeking his second consecutive term. [NYT/ Dionne Searcey and Emmanuel Akinwotu]

Verbatim

“What you do to children matters. And they might never forget.” [Excerpt from God Help the Child by Toni Morrison, who turns 88 years old today]


Watch this: American segregation, mapped at day and night

We work in diverse places. We live in segregated ones. [YouTube / Alvin Chang]


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