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Majors & Degrees

Romance scams pose financial and psychological threat

May 15, 2024

Dakota State University doctoral student LD Herrera founded Expert Approach, Inc., a cybersecurity and web development company, in 2006. Unfortunately, his expertise did not protect his family.

“In 2018, months after my father passed away, my mother fell for a romance scammer,” he said. “It was a very challenging time which spurred my interest in the topic.”

He is not only interested in romance scams, he is driven by the desire to become one of the leading researchers in the country in this area. These scams begin when a scammer creates a false online profile on a social media or dating site.

“After initial communication, the scammer becomes what I like to call a ‘romance engineer.’ He or she manufactures a relationship with the victim, providing them with love and attention,” Herrera said.

The scammer then entices the victim into sending money or engaging in other activities that are not in the victim’s best interests. After the money is gone or the relationship ends, the victim must deal with the betrayal and loss. The impact of this motivates Herrera.

“Friends, family, and other support, including law enforcement, can compound the issue by blaming the victim. The emotional and psychological damages can be devastating and, in some instances, have been equated to PTSD,” he said.

However, Herrera is also concerned because federal data relies on victim reports. The FBI’s Internet Crime Report indicates that in 2023, nearly 18,000 victims lost more than $740 million due to romance scams. The same report indicates more than $4.5 billion was lost in investment fraud.

“I suspect that if victims are reporting on this crime at a lower rate than other crimes, reports such as these, which are based on victim reports, would be skewed, showing a higher prevalence for those crimes that are reported at a higher rate,” Herrera said.

Research he has done thus far supports his hypothesis. He shared his results at the 12th International Symposium on Digital Forensics and Security in San Antonio, Texas. Later this year, he will be presenting on a related topic at the 2024 National Conference on Guardianship in Long Beach, Calif.

“I have been asked to do two, one-hour presentations on ‘An Exploration of Modern Scams Affecting Vulnerable Populations’ because of the high amount of interest in this topic,” Herrera said.

His research justifies apprehension about scams, including romance scams. He not only looked at federal reports, scholarly publications, and news reports, but also took advantage of a tool developed by Google called Google Trends which tracks search terms.

“I could clearly see persistent growth in the interest in romance scams,” he said. “With the emergence of AI (artificial intelligence) and an increase in the number of older adults in the U.S., there is reason for concern.”

Herrera is working on a Ph.D. in Cyber Defense. He has been awarded a graduate research assistantship through the National Science Foundation Research Trainee Program. He is conducting research under the guidance of Dr. Ashley Podhradsky, Vice President for Research and Economic Development.