Cybersecurity

Tinder Swindler: How 'romance fraud' became a multi-billion dollar cybercrime

Romance fraud is intricate, running globally as an enormous business.

Romance fraud is intricate, running globally as an enormous business. Image: Unsplash/Yogas Design

Robin Pomeroy
Podcast Editor, World Economic Forum Geneva
Sophia Akram
Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • Romance fraud is happening on a large scale across borders, yielding $1 trillion in profits by taking the age-old yearning for love and preying on it with the help of technology.
  • Cecilie Fjellhøy, from the Netflix documentary 'The Tinder Swindler', shares her experience and talks about her work helping other victims. Sean Doyle, part of the World Economic Forum's Centre for Cybersecurity, joins in to explain the scale of the problem.
  • Listen to the podcast here, on any podcast app via this link or YouTube.

“I met him in person. [He] looked like his pictures. Really charming. Really opening up to me. So we had a coffee. He was talking about his job. He was the CEO of a big diamond company. On the first day I met him, we travelled on this private jet. I fell quickly and I fell hard…”

Those who have watched the Netflix documentary 'The Tinder Swindler' know that the ending of this love story does not quite match the romantic beginnings. The speaker is Cecilie Fjellhøy, the Norwegian woman at the centre of the scandal where her Tinder date boyfriend conned her out of £200,000.

Fjellhøy spoke to Anna Bruce-Lockhart on this episode of Radio Davos, detailing how she fell for and exposed the lies of her scammer and is now helping other victims of similar scams through her NGO LoveSaid.

Sean Doyle, from the World Economic Forum’s Centre for Cybersecurity, joins the programme to reveal just how widespread romance fraud is and what is being done to combat it.

Here are some highlights (edited for brevity and clarity).

Have you read?

The makings of a romance scam

Cecilie Fjellhøy: I met him in person. [He] looked like his pictures. Really charming. Really opening up to me. So we had a coffee. He was talking about his job. He was the CEO of a big diamond company. On the first day I met him, we travelled on this private jet. I fell quickly and I fell hard.

I was introduced to his entire team of people who had been waiting for him. I met his business partner and private assistant, his bodyguard and several drivers, and his daughter and the baby's mother.

When I was visiting him, they created immersive theatres around me. I was with him one day during Easter, and we would be together for Easter. But then Peter called: Simon. They found you. They found you. You have to leave now. I have a plane ready for you. I don't know where you're going, but you need to leave now.' …

In the end, I'd taken up nine loans and over £200,000 in just 54 days.

Mixing the love that I had for him and the care and being scared, you have a very strong cocktail there to get people to do what you want.

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Victim shaming

Cecilie Fjellhoy: I think that the hardest part of being a fraud victim is what comes afterwards.

While I was also a suspect with the police, four banks in Norway took me to court because I couldn't pay the loans I had taken out. So, in the summer of 2019, I got slapped with a lawsuit. And in Norway, you don't get any free legal help. So I had sold my apartment, so I had to use that money to [get] legal help, but that was also used against me at court.

Forty per cent of all crime is fraud. But only 1% of police resources are allocated to fight it. When you think about the intricacy of romance fraud, then how little is being used to tackle it? And I'm thinking about international collaboration here as well. In our case, it was nothing. Nothing. But we see that they can do it. They do it with drugs. They do it in human trafficking. And I think, in my case, it was proven that the minute he jumped from country to country, from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, no one could catch him. It was almost like it's impossible to collaborate…

Romance fraud at scale

Sean Doyle, Centre for Cybersecurity, World Economic Forum: It's a very good example of cybercrime.

It's playing on a very basic human need, the need to be loved has been around as long as people have been here, and the habits that people have of trying to trick each other have been going on for just as long…

Cecile is one example of a very, very large group of victims. This really is a very old form of fraud. What's changed is that the internet allows us to do this at scale and across countries…

The Global Scam Alliance has put out an estimate of, I think, $1 trillion in profits. We come back to recent incidents we've had of 220,000 plus people being recorded as being trafficked to work in cyber fraud farms.

We can really say that that is probably the tip of the iceberg. We've seen a large number of arrests in countries like the Philippines, Thailand, India and across Europe, where criminals who are not previously into cybercrime are getting involved in this simply because of the amount of money they can get out of it and the reach they have through the internet to get a very large number of victims.

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