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RESEACH PROPOSAL TOPIC
ONLINE DATING FRAUD: EXPLORING THE NEED FOR REGULATION OF SOCIAL NETWORKING AND ONLINE DATING SITES.
The advent of computer, internet and related communication technologies has created huge advantages for society for example e-commerce which encompasses e-payment, online shopping and online banking, instant messaging, video conferencing, social networking sites etc. In December 1995, across the globe there were estimated to be 16 million users of the internet (Jewkes & Yar, 2010b) and this number increased to around 361 million users in 2000. (Internet World Stats, 2012). In 2018, the number of internet users has grown to a whopping 4.2 billion (See Figure 1 below)
Flowing from the above analysis, it may be correct to argue that a substantial number of internet users are also subscribers on different social networking sites. Valkenburg and Peter, (2007) claimed that social networking has now become the fourth most popular strategy in finding a date or a romantic partner. For instance, surveys reveal that there were an estimated 29 million Americans who used an online dating service. (Edelson, 2003). Also, as of the second quarter of 2018, Facebook had 2.23 billion active users. https://www.statista.com/statistics/264810/number-of-monthly-active-facebook-users-worldwide/.
(Donath, 1999, p. 54) anchored the rise in social networking and dating sites subscription on the anonymity of one’s identity in online communication which allows people to develop reputations based on the quality of their ideas, rather than their job, wealth, age or status. Online Social networking and dating sites empower users to have more control over their self-representation thereby enabling them to strategize their self-disclosure or identity-management in order to achieve an ideal self-representation This high degree of anonymity and quest for an ideal online figure has resulted in an increased online deception achievable through identity theft (Ellison et al., 2006).
In view of the foregoing, a type of cyber-crime known as Online Romance Frauds which is considered as the most devious of advanced fee fraud (419) was birthed (Koon & Yoong, 2013) and same has since experienced an exponential growth with a corresponding success rate. It is pertinent to note that online romance fraudsters use fictitious identities to approach and initiate romantic relationship with their unsuspecting targets with the intention of defrauding them of enormous sums of money (Whitty & Buchanan, 2012, p. 14). These fraudsters start off by using friendship or romance or in extreme cases marriage as bait, and once a trusting psychological and emotional bond is established, the fraudsters demand for money from the targets using circumstantial excuses, for example, payment of medical bills for the fraudsters or the fraudsters’ loved ones mostly a family member, to secure release from the immigration department or customs department at the airport, to secure release of a consignment which would purportedly be beneficial to both the Fraudsters and the target etc. (Rege A 2009). Studies have shown that most dating sites fail to use any solid full proof identification mechanism, thereby encouraging dating fraud (Alkai’s 2016).
The major problem is the fact that the operators of these online dating services appear to be having a field day bereft of any regulation from the up rise in subscriptions and usage of their services by love seeking and lonely clients. Studies show that the ‘online personals category’ is one of the most lucrative forms of paid content on the web in the United States, with the market being worth $642 million in 2008 and $1.9 billion in 2012 (Edelson, 2003). The total profit of online dating services is estimated to be $1.4 billion. These revenues are said to be growing at a rate of 10 percent each year (Bridges, 2012).
RESEARCH AIM: This paper shall examine cybercrime with specific focus on Online Romance Fraud, modus operandi of the fraudsters, the role of the online social networking and dating sites in the facilitation of this type of fraud and why it has become essential to regulate these online social networking and dating sites considering the enormous amounts of revenue they generate from their users who fall victims to these frauds. Recommendations shall be made on how such crime can be curbed thereby rendering online social networking site and dating sites unattractive to fraudsters.
RESEARCH QUESTIONS: This paper shall examine the following questions:
- What is the role of online social networking and dating sites in the facilitation of Online Romance Frauds?
- Is there a need for the regulation of the activities of online social networking and dating sites?
- DEFINITION OF CYBERCRIME
There is no single definition of cybercrime. Casey (2000) however defines cybercrime as “any crime that involves computers and networks, including crimes that do not rely heavily on computers”. There are two major categorizations of cybercrime i.e. “computer-assisted crimes” and “computer-focused crimes”. (Furnell 2002)
It is pertinent to note that computer assisted crimes generally do not require any special computer skills since such crimes can best be described as old crimes in new era. It simply means that neither technology nor the internet caused the crime rather the technology and the internet serve as a tool used by the offender to facilitate the commission of the said crime (Casey 2000). For example, online dating fraud, online bullying, online stalking, online child pornography and child molestation, identity theft, phishing amongst others. Computer Focused Crime are those crimes that came into existence upon the establishment of the internet and could not exist part from it e.g. hacking, viral attacks, website defacement e.t.c (Lilley 2002) The question now is: why do offenders engage in cybercrime?
- THEORIES OF CYBERCRIME
There are numerous and inexhaustible literatures on the theories of crime. For the purpose of this research, reliance shall be placed on Routine Activity Theory which looks at crime from the offenders’ point of view. This theory shall help in illuminating the following issues:
- The motivation of an offender in an Online Romance Fraud.
- What makes an online dating site user a potential target in an Online Romance Fraud.
Routine Activity Theory (Cohen and Felson 1979) may best be described as an expansion of the lifestyle exposure theory espoused by Hindelang et al. in 1978. According to Cohen and Felson, a crime consists of three main components to wit:
- A motivated offender
- Presence of a suitable target
- Absence of a capable guardian.
These components must co-exist in every given circumstance for a crime to occur. Absence of any one of the above components would most likely decrease and or eliminate crime.
A motivated offender may best be described as a person who anticipates a reward for a deviant behavior with little or no chance of getting apprehended by the law enforcement agents. Differential reinforcement concept of Social Learning Theory stipulates that an occurrence of a defiant behavior depends primarily on the balance of past, present and anticipated rewards and punishment for such action. The greater the value, frequency and probability of reward for deviant behavior, the greater the likelihood that it will occur and be repeated (Akers 1989). Therefore, a motivated offender is that online dating site subscriber whose intention is to connect with, groom and eventually swindle an unsuspecting love/relationship seeker of his or her hard-earned resources.
Felson and Boba (2010) states that target suitability is likely to reflect four main criteria to wit: a. the value of crime target b. the inertia of crime target c. the physical visibility of crime target and d. the accessibility of crime target (VIVA). A suitable target in this research is the unsuspecting love/relationship seeker.
Absence of a suitable guardian in this research will be attributed to the volatility of the cyberspace and the associated difficulties in policing same. In a bid to explain the seeming unrelenting rise in cybercrimes, Williams (2015) compared cyberspace to a border town characterized by an abundance of opportunities where nationals are responsible for their own safety in the absence of effective state intervention. Forms of self-regulation such as installation of antivirus softwares, installation of secure browsers, regular change of passwords otherwise described as individual guardianship as espoused by (Holt and Bossler 2008) have been found to be ineffective in Online Romance Frauds.
- CONCEPT OF ONLINE ROMANCE FRAUD
Social networking and Online dating websites traceable to two decades, have proliferated and become very popular (Kaplan and Haenlein, 2010). Teenagers and young adults have also embraced this technological innovation using their computers or mobile devices to connect with their peers, share information, reinvent their personalities and showcase their social lives (Boyd & Ellison, 2008).
Social networking and online dating sites such as Facebook, Instagram, Badoo, Oasis.com, tinder, eharmony, Christian mingle, plenty of fish, eurodate.com, UKmatch.com e.t.c create a platform where subscribers meet prospective lovers with whom they purport to share similar goals, dreams and aspirations. A feeling of love, affection and intimacy is developed and nurtured through frequent chats vide instant messaging, telephone calls and in rare cases video calls which ultimately metamorphosizes into a relationship with a virtual individual who exists only in the cyberspace (Adeyemi, 2018).
Studies has also shown that only a few users of such platforms wait to see their online lover before agreeing to a relationship proposal (Lenhart & Madden, 2007). This is probably because of the general assumption that the fraud technique appeal to strong emotions which makes it nearly impossible for a victim to be rational in making decisions (Kopp, Layton, Sillitoe and Gondal 2015). This explains why (Hamzi 2015) defined online romance Fraud as a variation of advanced fee scheme which makes use of fictitious identities as a tool to approach and initiate romantic relationship with unsuspecting targets with intention of defrauding them of large sums of money.
Whitty & Buchanan’s (2012) study of online dating Fraud in Britain reveal that an estimated 230,000 British citizens might have fallen victim to online romance crime, far above what had been reported in previous studies. This may be attributed to under reporting of this crime considering the psychological effect of this fraud on their victims. In some cases, victims have been robbed and killed. For example, 67-year-old Perth woman Jette Jacobs was found dead in South Africa on 9 February 2013 after she travelled there to meet a man she had commenced a long-distance relationship with via an online dating site. Ms Jacobs had already sent over $100,000 to the man she met online including $20,000 to assist him with travelling. (Powell 2013).
In 2009, a 58-year-old UK man committed suicide by lying on train tracks after losing £82,000 in an online romance fraud. The twice-divorced man had been deceived into paying for numerous medical bills for a woman he met online and had developed a romantic relationship with over the internet (Brooke 2010). Statistics released by Action Fraud UK in 2017 revealed that a total number of 3557 Romance Frauds were reported and approximately the sum of 41 million GBP were conned out of those victims (Action Fraud https://www.actionfraud.police.uk/news/victims-lost-41-million-to-romance-fraud-in-2017 ).
Whitty & Secur (2015) identify distinct stages of Online Romance Fraud. First, the criminal creates a fancy profile to attract victims. Secondly, he grooms them for exploitation. At the third stage, he begins to actually request for funds, leading to the fourth stage of sexual abuse and finally the stage of exposition. Research conducted by Koon and Yoong (2013) revealed that the grooming stage entails the use of a credible personae such a God-fearing person. Silva (2007) reveals that people with religious affiliations tend to be stereotyped as being more morally upright, decent and well-bred. Therefore, by creating a devout and Christlike persona, a fraudster can lead the potential target to believe that the intentions are genuine thereby alleviating the target’s initial apprehensions and doubt. In addition to (Koon and Yoong, 2013)’s detailed research highlighted above, this paper shall reveal that creating of a credible persona is usually initiated by the use of fake profiles and fake photographs to mask the real identity of the fraudsters and to portray an amiable personality to unsuspecting targets.
This research shall adopt a qualitative method of research through review and evaluation of studies and secondary data published by relevant literature, law enforcement agencies and news-based television networks. Finding these victims of online dating fraud might prove difficult considering that some of them may be too embarrassed to come forward. Therefore, interview of victims shall not be considered in this research because of the psychological and emotional impact such an interview would have on the victims. In the same vein, finding romance fraudsters to interview or survey is nearly impossible since they belong to an underground organized crime unit. Acquiring access to these fraudsters require technical expertise and most likely covert operations which are beyond the scope of this research not to mention the ethical issues such involvement would raise. Interviewing and or surveying law enforcement agencies may seem equally untenable considering the prolonged time frame within which to get approval from the relevant authority. Online dating site representatives on the other hand may decline participation for these reasons: a. fear of being perceived by their subscribers as vulnerable to fraud due to lax fraud detection measures. b. fear of driving away potential customers which would result in lose of revenue.
Regardless of these pitfalls and challenges, this research paper shall rely heavily on interviews conducted on the victims of these online dating fraud and published on the websites of credible news-based television channels such as BBC, CNN, ABC News, Filmon Tv amongst others. Secondary data gathered from these websites and of course the relevant research carried out by experts in the area of online dating fraud shall be reorganized and analyzed to specifically address the aim and objectives of this paper. Specific data if any on steps taken by these online dating websites towards the protection of their subscribers from fraudsters shall be gathered from their websites to address the aim of this research. Feedbacks on forums relating to experiences of users on these websites shall be gathered and analyzed as well. The website of Online Dating Association in UK shall be analyzed for details on its role towards the protection of users of these websites from fraud.
In summary, the proposed research shall enlighten the policy and law makers on the urgent need for the regulation of online social networking site and dating sites. The research will also help develop checks and balances that needs to be complied with by the owners of these online dating sites in order to make their sites less attractive to fraudsters. The research findings will also inform and enlighten users of these websites on how to better protect themselves from fraudsters.
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