Laura Cahill is caring, trusting and looking for love. She’s a model from Texas, currently in Paris for a modelling seminar. She is also a fiction, created by a Nigerian crime ring known as Scarlet Widow to scam victims out of their life savings.
The criminal group, which has been preying on romance seekers since 2015, employs social engineering techniques to string victims along, squeezing them for all the money they can – sometimes for years.
For some, the psychological damage can be devastating.
While romance scams are nothing new – the Federal Trade Commission estimates $143m was stolen last year through them – Scarlet Widow is a particularly nasty strain.
Cybersecurity firm Agari has been tracking and gathering intelligence on the criminal group since 2017.
Through its research, Agari discovered a disturbing trend. As well as creating dozens of fake profiles on popular sites like Match and eHarmony, Scarlet Widow specifically targets specialised dating sites such as Dating4Disabled.com, Farmers Dating Site and DivorcedPeopleMeet.com.
“Those are all very niche dating sites that they [Scarlet Widow] are clearly signing up for because of the population of individuals going to that site,” explains Crane Hassold, senior director of Threat Research at Agari and an 11-year veteran of the FBI.
“What they all have in common is that they are vulnerable in different ways. I think the vulnerability of potential victims is something they’re really focused on when looking for someone to scam.”
Bad romance: Luring the victim
While the character may change, Scarlet Widow’s approach remains largely the same. First, the scammers set up a fake profile using an image – almost always an attractive woman – stolen from social media. A backstory is created, often with a tragic past.
All Scarlet Widow has to do now is sit back and wait for a bite.
When the scammers receive a message, they reply with a scripted message that is crafted to nudge the victim into a false sense of trust.
“I also believe in open communication, Standing in trust, Being honest and having integrity. Honoring and respecting each other is high on my list,” reads one message from ‘Laura Cahill’.
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Over a series of messages, Scarlet Widow earns the victim’s confidence. Once the hook has been sunk deeply enough, Scarlet Widow strikes.
Usually, Scarlet Widow invents a story that requires financial assistance. In the case of Laura Cahill, she has fallen victim to identity fraud and is stranded in Paris without means to pay for a plane ticket back to the US.
The group goes through extreme lengths to verify the story, providing bogus email addresses that claim to be an estate agent that can confirm her story, as well as providing legitimate looking plane ticket receipts.
And so the relationship continues, a series of promises never kept and money lost.
Agari: Hunting Scarlet Widow
Scarlet Widow first came onto the radar of ACID, Agari’s research unit, after Scarlet Widow targeted one of its customers in a business email compromise scam in 2017.
Agari has been tracking and gathering intelligence on the crime ring ever since, posing as users on dating sites to engage with profiles suspected to be controlled by Scarlet Widow.
Through this active engagement, passive observation and open source intelligence gathering, Agari has gained an insight into the workings of the group including the following fake personas:
- ‘Starling Micheal’, a supposed active duty U.S. Army Captain. Captain Micheal was used as an identity to con women through romance sites including MilitaryCupid.com and MarriedDateLink.com during a six month period between February 2017 and August 2017.
- ‘Britney Parkwell’, a 27-year-old woman from San Jose, California. Britney is half Puerto Rican and works in art and fabric sales, which she was introduced to by her father who died five years ago. Her favourite sports are baseball and basketball and she describes herself as “independent, optimistic, respectful, sensual, and attractive.
- ‘Lisa Frankel’, an only child who lost her mother to cancer when she was four years old. She lives in Oslo, Norway, and just got out of a relationship a few months ago because she found her ex-boyfriend cheating on her. Lisa sells medical equipment for a living and loves traveling to visit interesting places.
Agari also observed some of the victims, including ‘Robert Blackwell’, a religious man who had been going through a difficult divorce. Scarlet Widow took advantage of this and over the course of a year, extorted at least $50,000 from ‘Robert’.
Chances of catching romance scammers
While romance scam groups also originate from Ghana, England and Canada, Agari’s research suggests 90% come from Nigeria.
In part, this is because it is difficult to prosecute individuals overseas, with the majority of victims located in the US.
But with investigations such as Agari’s shining a light on romance scams, it is gradually becoming easier. Last year, for instance, the FBI arrested 29 Nigerian cyber scammers in a major email fraud bust that spanned seven countries.
“I think that Nigeria has become more cooperative with the US and probably the UK as well when working to take down some of these groups,” says Hassold.
But while Nigeria is “not a complete safe haven” for fraudsters any more, we are yet to reach a tipping point where the risk outweighs the reward for gangs like Scarlet Widow.
“I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that their driving force is to make money. That overrides a lot of the red flags that they may see,” says Hassold.
“Something may seem suspicious to them, but because they just want to make money, and if they have a potential victim on the hook then they’ll continue with it.”
But ultimately, Hasssold says that if we reach a point were where Scarlet Widow pauses when engaging with a real victim, that’s a win for cyber threat teams like Agari.
What can dating sites do to stop romance scams?
Hassold concedes that it’s “difficult” for dating sites to combat the fake profiles flooding their sites. And, as with the case of ‘Robert Blackwell’, it can be almost impossible for friends and family to persuade a victim that they are being scammed.
“The state that some of these victims are in, emotionally and psychologically, it is is difficult for the victims to give that second thought,” says Hassold.
All reputable dating sites contain advice pages that warn users of suspicious behaviour. Dating4Disabled.com, for example, offers advice on its FAQ page such as “Ask a lot of questions and watch for inconsistencies”.
But technology could also be beneficial in the fight against romance scam groups like Scarlet Widow.
Researchers at the University of Warwick have been developing an algorithm that can spot fake dating profiles by trawling dating sites for suspicious giveaways in the image, descriptions and overall authenticity of the profile.
Professor Sorell, who led the research, says: “Online dating fraud is a very common, often unreported crime that causes huge distress and embarrassment for victims as well as financial loss. Using AI techniques to help reveal suspicious activity could be a game-changer that makes detection and prevention quicker, easier and more effective, ensuring that people can use dating sites with much more confidence in future.”
The number of false positives is small – around 1%. The team is continuing to improve the algorithm, with the aim of it being rolled out on dating services within the next couple of years.
But until then, Scarlet Widow will continue to prey on the vulnerable, luring victims into its costly web of lies.