Here is a version of an assignment I did for my Social Engineering class at Webster University, CSSS 5280 that I modified for the blog. The version I submitted has not been graded yet.
A couple of years ago a co-worker excitedly told me about an interesting man she met on Facebook. As she continued to add details to her story, I recognized what she was dealing with – a common romance scam that I’ve seen many times. I felt sad having to explain to her that she was being groomed for some kind of exploitation, because she seemed so excited.
I’ve been a Facebook user for a long time, since 2008. I use my personal Facebook page for marketing as well as networking. It’s the nature of a lot of work that I do that it has been useful to allow people get to know aspects of the public-facing me – I’m not the most skilled at networking in person. I have most content on my Facebook account set to the security setting “Public” and I sometimes accept friend requests from people I don’t know unless they seem threatening.
I don’t remember exactly when I started noticing this, but every once in awhile I’d get a Facebook friend request from a man who claimed to be either in the military or working overseas in a civilian field like engineering, or the oil industry, or something like that. The first few times I went ahead and accepted these types of friend requests, because I’m generally disposed to be friendly and supportive to people unless I have reason not to be. I soon started noticing some patterns. The men in the profiles were generally above average in attractiveness, but looked like real people, not models. They were often photographed in an “action” pose or setting. Often their first and last names were two of what we would usually consider first names, put together. They sounded like what a foreigner’s idea of a generic American name would sound like rather than genuine selection of random American names. They usually claimed to be originally from the US or Europe but currently doing some kind of work in the Middle East. Their Facebook profiles were generally not very well populated with friends or content, so seemed like they had a short-lived social media presence. I could tell they hadn’t looked at my profile to learn basic facts about me, but claimed to have a burning desire to be my “boyfriend”. At first I gently turned away “romantic” conversation by saying I don’t do long distance relationships and I don’t “sext”. True statements, but irrelevant when I noticed the patterns of personal disinterest in me and constant boundary pushing. I decided they were all scammers seeking money, passwords, green cards, nude photos or all of the above and stopped accepting those requests. You would think that the word would get out about these scams enough for people to avoid them but from 2015 to 2019 the amount of money lost in online romance scams rose six times, from $33 million to $201 million (“What You Need…”).
I was able to recognize that type of scam earlier than some unfortunate other victims, but that doesn’t mean I’ve never been played. I’ve known for decades to avoid online dating and long-distance “relationships”. Before I was married I only dated men that I met in real-life situations. I was looking for suitors to court me for marriage, not hookups. I knew I would need to meet their friends, family and work colleagues and observe how they dealt with a variety of life situations over a period of time to learn their character and intentions. As a result, I was not in much demand for dates and for my age I was not very experienced. Men mostly preferred easier targets. What I didn’t realize until I experienced it is that there are people who have trained themselves to groom people like me for the purpose of perpetrating a long con. I believe I was being set up by a former “boyfriend” to be financially exploited, but was able to get out before I actually handed over any money. I had some medical bills to pay from therapy that I needed to be functional again after the emotional abuse that was gradually applied to me without me noticing for awhile, and that was pretty humiliating.
Pick Up Artists, or PUAs, are people who feign romantic interest in order to get a quick sexual conquest (Kale). Pick Up Artist techniques have been around a long time, but the Internet and the popularity of books on the topic changed the culture of dating a lot, so that by the end of the first decade of the 2000s, there was a noticeable difference in dating culture (Kale). PUA techniques are emotionally abusive and are designed to break down the resistance and push the boundaries of the target for the gratification of the abuser (Kale).
Right after reading what our first assignment for this class was, I got a typical romance scam Facebook request so I accepted it for the purpose of getting a few screen shots to show an example in action.
This example is a little unusual because this scammer is not claiming to have an “American” sounding name, but otherwise it’s pretty representative. I kept the initial conversation going for a few minutes with some generic responses on my part so I could get screen shots to show how these grooming sessions usually start. If it seems predictable like it’s a formula, that’s because it is! Romance scammers and PUAs use actual playbooks and rehearse lines in increase their proficiency (Panikian). Some even pay money to attend classes and workshops (Panikian, Dixon).
Cialdini’s Six Principles of Influence are time-tested manipulation techniques (Changingminds.org) that we are studying in Social Engineering class. I’m going to compare Cialdini’s Six Principles of Influence with some Pick Up Artist tactics to find out how and why some of the PUA techniques work.
“Reciprocity: Obligation to repay.” Giving you a lot of compliments in the beginning is called “love bombing”. They can be generous in the beginning but stingy later (Bancroft 68).
“Consistency and Commitment: Need for personal alignment.” Victimizers use your integrity and need to make your actions match your beliefs as a weapon against you. PUAs take advantage of the tendency of women to have been socialized to be polite to men (Kale).
“Social Proof: The power of what others do.” PUAs play up their attractiveness to others by talking about exes, flirting with other people in front of you, etc. to make themselves seem in demand (Dixon).
“Liking: The obligations of friendship.” People are flattered when a very attractive person, who could be a fake persona, seems to like them (Paul). PUAs like to make you feel special by paying a lot of attention to you, but it could be love-bombing or distracting you from noticing what they are really like (Dixon).
“Authority: We obey those in charge.”
PUAs are instructed to exude a lot of confidence (Panikian, Dixon) and think and act as if they are the actual prize (Kale).
“Scarcity: We want what may not be available.”
One PUA technique is to pretend that they are getting ready to leave a social situation so you feel pressured to talk to them because they might be gone soon. Also to give you the impression that the PUA is leaving soon and you don’t think you’ll be stuck with them long so there isn’t much downside to allowing a little conversation (Dixon).
Please protect yourself out there, on or offline!
AlphaWolf & Co. “Pick Up Artist (PUA).” PUA Lingo, 2008-2021, www.pualingo.com/. Accessed 25 February 2021.
— “Neg Hit/Negging (Negs).” PUA Lingo, 2008-2021, www.pualingo.com/. Accessed 25 February 2021.
Bancroft, Lundy. Why Does He Do That? Inside The Minds of Angry and Controlling Men. Berkeley Books. 2002.
ChangingMinds.org. “Cialdini’s Six Principles of Influence”. Changing Works, 2002-2021, changingminds.org/. Accessed 16 March 2021.
Fellizar, Kristine. “7 Pickup Artist Techniques To Look Out For.” Bustle, 2019, https://www.bustle.com/p/7-pickup-artist-techniques-to-look-out-for-15897579. Accessed 18 March 2021.
Hadnagy, Christopher. Social Engineering: The Science of Human Hacking. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2018.
Kale, Sirin. “50 years of pickup artists: why is the toxic skill still so in demand?” Guardian News & Media Limited, 2019, www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/nov/05/pickup-artists-teaching-men-approach-women-industry-street-harassment. Accessed 18 March 2021.
Dixon, Christine-Marie Liwag. “How To Tell If You’re Being Hit On By A Pickup Artist” The List, 2020, www.thelist.com/183636/how-to-tell-if-youre-being-hit-on-by-a-pickup-artist/. Accessed 16 March 2021.
Panikian, Alice. “Stay Away From Becoming His Prey: 10 Signs You’re A Pick-Up Artist’s Prey.” elite daily, 2014, www.elitedaily.com/women/signs-youre-talking-to-pick-artist/854610. Accessed 16 March 2021.
Paul, Kari. “‘I was humiliated’ — online dating scammers hold nude photos for ransom in ‘sextortion’.” MarketWatch, Inc, 2019, www.marketwatch.com/story/i-was-humiliated-online-dating-scammers-hold-nude-photos-for-ransom-in-sextortion-attacks-2019-03-06. Accessed 16 March 2021.
“What You Need to Know About Romance Scams.” Federal Trade Commission, 2021, www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/what-you-need-know-about-romance-scams. Accessed 16 March 2021.