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Artificial Intelligence could help to foil online dating scams

Marianne Knight

Original Article from EPSRC Website.

Dating apps and websites could soon use computing algorithms that ‘think’ like humans to pinpoint fake profiles designed to con victims out of thousands of pounds.

Algorithms with this capability have been developed as part of wide-ranging research into combating online fraud led by the University of Warwick and funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).The new algorithms have been designed specifically to understand what fake dating profiles look like and then to apply this knowledge when they scan profiles submitted to online dating services. They automatically look out for suspicious signs inadvertently included by fraudsters in the demographic information, the images and the self-descriptions that make up profiles, and reach an overall conclusion as to the probability of each individual profile being fake.

When tested, the algorithms produced a very low false-positive rate (the number of genuine profiles mistakenly flagged up as fake) of around 1 per cent. The aim is now to further enhance the technique and enable it to start being taken up by dating services within the next couple of years, helping them to prevent profiles being posted by scammers.

With Valentine’s Day fast approaching, the news that these Artificial Intelligence (AI) capabilities have the potential to help thwart so-called ‘rom-con’ scams will be very welcome to the millions of people who use online dating services in the UK and worldwide. In these scams, fraudsters target users of dating websites and apps, ‘groom’ them and then ask for gifts of money or loans which will never be returned. In 2017, over 3,000 Britons lost a total of £41 million in such incidents, with an average loss of £11,500.

The work on the textual and other computer characteristics of online dating messages and profiles was led by Professor Awais Rashid (now at the University of Bristol, previously at the University of Lancaster) and Dr Gianluca Stringhini (previously at UCL and now at Boston University). It formed just one aspect of an overall research initiative that has also involved King’s College London, Cardiff University and partners worldwide and has aimed at boosting efforts to detect and prevent mass fraud that exploits online channels. Other aspects of the initiative have, for example, focused on better understanding of the psychology of people most likely to become repeat victims of online scams.

The project was primarily led by Professor Monica Whitty (now at the University of Melbourne) with Professor Tom Sorell of the University of Warwick taking over in the final stages. Professor Sorell 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.

Notes for Editors:

The two-and-a-half-year project Detecting and Preventing Mass-Marketing Fraud received around £0.84 million in EPSRC support.

Project partners included (UK unless stated):

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is the field of computer science concerned with developing machines that ‘think’ in a human-like way. An algorithm is a sequence of instructions designed to carry out a specific task.

2017 UK figures on dating fraud are reported by AgeUK. They are derived from data gathered by the City of London Police Economic Crime Directorate, which is recognised as the UK’s national policing lead for fraud. Advance-fee fraud generally involves a victim being promised a share of a big sum of money in return for a small payment up-front.

Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is part of UK Research and Innovation, a non-departmental public body funded by a grant-in-aid from the UK government. EPSRC is the main funding body for engineering and physical sciences research in the UK. By investing in research and postgraduate training, we are building the knowledge and skills base needed to address the scientific and technological challenges facing the nation. Our portfolio covers a vast range of fields from healthcare technologies to structural engineering, manufacturing to mathematics, advanced materials to chemistry. The research we fund has impact across all sectors. It provides a platform for future UK prosperity by contributing to a healthy, connected, resilient, productive nation.

Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is part of UK Research and Innovation, a non-departmental public body funded by a grant-in-aid from the UK government. EPSRC is the UK’s largest funder of research on the social and economic questions facing us today. It supports the development and training of the UK’s future social scientists and also funds major studies that provide the infrastructure for research. EPSRC-funded research informs policymakers and practitioners and helps make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective.

The University of Warwick has a total of over 26,000 students and performs consistently strongly in UK league tables. It was named among the top 20 ‘most international’ universities in the world in a 2018 Times Higher Education report.

The University of Bristol is home to over 24,000 students and is one of the most popular and successful universities in the UK. It was ranked within the top 5% of universities in the world in the QS World University Rankings 2019.

University College London has more than 38,000 students and 13,000 staff from 150 different countries. It was the top-rated university in the UK for research strength in the Research Excellence Framework (REF) published in December 2014.

Reference: PN 10-19