"We spoke over the phone for hours everyday. I knew his family, friends, colleagues — even his ex-girlfriends," said an exasperated Nisha (name changed).
"We were just like a real couple, you know," she added.
Except they weren't.
In 2019, a sweet-talking man who identified himself as Rohan Sharma matched with her on Bumble, an online dating app. He turned out to be a fraudster, and cost her Rs 53,000.
Recently, this nightmare came rushing back to Nisha, a 35-year-old HR manager in Gurugram, when she read about a 39-year-old woman in Uttar Pradesh's Noida being scammed in a similar way of Rs 66,000 on Bumble. In this case, an FIR was filed in Uttar Pradesh’s Noida and five Nigerian men and one Bhutanese woman were arrested.
As per a study published in February 2023 by Norton — a consumer cyber safety brand — three out of four victims of frauds on datings apps suffered financial losses. In fact, the study claimed that Indians, on an average, lost Rs 7,966 per month due to these scams.
This piece narrates the ordeal of people who fell prey to similar frauds; delves into cyber safety and privacy; and explores the modus operandi used to fool several dating app users.
What Happened in Noida?
In the case of the Noida woman, an FIR was registered at the Noida sector 20 police station on 1 March under sections 420 (cheating) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and 66D (cheating by personation using a computer resource or communication device) of the Information Technology (Amendment) Act, 2008.
On 5 March, DCP Noida Harish Chander said that the police has "busted a gang of six Nigerian men and one Bhutanese woman who defrauded women on dating apps by first befriending them and then posing as customs officials."
"All seven of them were arrested from their residence near the Noida Expressway. The police seized three laptops, 17 mobile phones, one internet dongle, Rs 40,860, three passports, and one scooter from the location," the DCP said
The Modus Operandi
As per the FIR, accessed by The Quint, the 39-year-old first met the accused over Bumble, an online dating app where profiles of potential matches are displayed to users, who can 'swipe left' to reject a candidate or 'swipe right' to show interest.
"I came in contact with the man (name withheld to protect victim's identity) on Bumble on 16 January 2023. He claimed he was born in Pune and moved to Amsterdam in the Netherlands at the age of six or seven. We spoke and texted every day for weeks and he even introduced me to his mother over the phone," the complainant said in the FIR.
She added that as per their conversations, the accused left Amsterdam for Mumbai to meet her on 31 January. "On 1 February, I received a call from one Sunita Gupta who said she was a customs' official and that this guy had brought with him one lakh euros. She asked me to pay Rs 66,000 as customs fee," the FIR quoted the complainant as saying.
It was then that the accused asked the 39-year-old to transfer Rs 45,000 as customs fee and Rs 50,000 as conversion fee to transfer the money into an Indian account, the complainant alleged.
Assuming this was a genuine problem, the woman transferred Rs 66,000 in total – all that she could collect at the time. Subsequently, the alleged customs official Sunita Gupta informed the complainant that the accused had been deported back to Amsterdam. "He was in touch with me till 6 February after which he did not text or call me," she said in her complaint.
A Noida IT cell police official working on the case told The Quint that the accused, Nigerian and Bhutanese nationals, came to India on student visas and were staying illegally after the visa expired.
But how did the Noida woman get duped by a Bumble match she had spent days talking to?
The police officer has the answer. "Initial investigation suggests that they used highly sophisticated technology which enabled them to change their voice, location, and even the face in case of video calls. They had been operating for over a year and have conned several women, some as old as 60," the official told The Quint.
A 'Shame Spiral'
Unlike the 39-year-old woman based in Noida, Nisha did not take the matter to the police. "To be honest, I felt like a fool who transferred money to a stranger without any due diligence. Going to the police would have meant informing my family, friends and other people about this," she said.
In 2019, after separating from her partner of four years, Nisha made a profile on multiple dating apps.
"I met him on Bumble. He introduced himself as Rohan Sharma, a Bengaluru-based techie. We spoke for a few weeks on the app, then moved the conversation to WhatsApp and followed each other on other social media platforms such as Facebook. I asked him to meet me but he said he will do that only if I accept a gift from him. I reluctantly agreed and in a few days, I received a Swarovski watch worth Rs 33,000," she told The Quint.
What happened after that still sends Nisha down a 'shame spiral', she said.
"Two days before I was going to take my flight to Bengaluru to meet him, he told me that he had to urgently leave for the US for an office trip. He apologised and said that he will send gifts to make up for it. We continued talking and a week later, I got a call from a supposed customs officer. He told me that two luxury handbags in my name were seized at the customs department in Delhi and that I will have to pay Rs 53,000 or face a police complaint," she recollected.
After the phone call, Nisha made a panicked call to Rohan who asked her to pay the money which he said he will return once he is back from his trip.
"I didn't sense anything suspicious. I transferred the money and right after that, I lost all contact with him," she told The Quint.
Rohan Sharma, the sweet-talking Bengaluru techie who wooed Nisha with gifts and dreams, vanished in thin air.
"Our conversations on the app, on WhatsApp, and over the phone made me believe I knew him. He spoke about his family, colleagues, friends, and almost all things under the sun. It was very much believable. Just like how couples talk in the real world," she emphasised. Years later, Nisha still can't believe she fell for this con.
The 'Swarovski' watch Nisha received as a gift was also a replica, she later found out.
Beware of The 'Tinder Swindlers'
These cases are neither isolated nor unique.
Cyber security expert Rakshit Tandon told The Quint that online dating apps have become a popular medium for fraudsters over the last few years.
"Cases of impersonation, financial fraud, sextortion and other similar cyber crimes on dating apps are being reported on a daily basis. These scams are as old as the Internet itself. I remember similar cases being reported in the days of Orkut. After social media sites, they've now moved to dating apps," Tandon explained.
He added that a simple Google search of "romance gift scams'' will lead one to a plethora of reports on such crimes.
"The scamsters try to first build an emotional relationship with the victim. They share small, intimate details about their lives to gain a person's trust and then send images of gifts waiting at the customs office asking for money to be released. This is the standard modus operandi."Rakshit Tandon, Cyber Security expert
The Red Flags
Women are not the only victims of financial scams on dating apps. Mohit (name changed), a resident of Navi Mumbai, said that he carefully observes the obvious 'red flags' in potential matches on apps such as Hinge, Tinder and Bumble.
This, after the 29-year-old almost got duped in 2022.
"I met this woman on Hinge. She told me she worked for an international bank in Delhi. She was 34 years old and told me she didn't mind dating younger men. In just about a week, it seemed that I knew everything about her — from her past relationships to her friends, family, work, and much more," Mohit told The Quint.
Two weeks after Mohit met the person on a dating app, she told him that she was coming to Mumbai for a business trip.
"I was quite excited. On the day of her flight, however, she frantically called to say that she had missed her flight and will now have to book the ticket herself," said Mohit.
Sounds fine so far, right?
Next, Mohit recalled, she asked him to book her a ticket.
"She said that her internet was patchy and she had left her cards at home. Basically, she wanted me to pay for the ticket, and I agreed because it was a small amount of Rs 5,000. Soon, I received a QR code to make the payment and when I clicked on it, it asked for a payment of Rs 50,000 instead of Rs 5,000. Thankfully, my account didn't have that much money and the payment was rejected," he recalled.
Thinking that it was a genuine mistake, Mohit called the woman to tell her about the lapse. She, however, didn't receive his call. "I tried calling her multiple times but she had blocked my number. Before I could figure out what had happened and take any screenshots, all her social media profiles were gone," he said.
According to Rakshit Tandon, a person's online behaviour is often different from their behaviour in real life.
"Most people won't agree to help anybody monetarily in real life but do not hesitate when asked for money on the internet. They tend to reveal much more when talking over social media and ignore the obvious red flags such as someone becoming friendly way too quickly, avoiding video calls or asking for money. These hackers use this online behaviour to their advantage when they indulge in frauds," Tandon said.
The Safety Question
After her experience on Bumble, Nisha vowed to never use a dating app again and has stuck to this decision since then. Mohit, however, is now extra careful.
"I still use Hinge and Bumble, though not as frequently. But I watch out for the red flags. There are online tools which can help a person verify images on dating apps. It's a tiring exercise but I never believed that giving up on dating apps altogether was a solution," he said.
According to Tandon, in most of these scams, it is difficult to find fault in the dating apps.
"Once the conversation moves away from the online platform and into the real, physical world. There is little that these apps can do. In most of these scams, the modus operandi is to win the trust of a person and make them ignore the red flags. For instance, when someone asks you for money and you transfer it willingly, you cannot find fault in the messenger they used to convince you," Tandon said.
The Quint has reached out to multiple online dating platforms for a comment on their privacy and safety policy. This story will be updated as and when we hear from them.
While Nisha herself does not use dating apps anymore, that's not the advice she has in store for others.
"I cannot fully blame dating apps for what happened with me. While I don't have the courage to use any of these apps again, I suggest people around me to experiment while they can. There are enough and more people who've met their partners through these apps," she said.