- Philippa Souza
- BBC – Sao Paulo
A man contacted a woman through a dating application and exchanged messages with her, and after a period of time, they arranged a date in order to meet face to face, and when he arrived at the agreed place, gunmen kidnapped him.
What was expected to be a promising romantic encounter turned into a nightmare that lasted for days.
In São Paulo, the largest and richest city in Brazil, this type of crime is common.
The public security minister told the BBC that the proportion of solicitations using fake profiles as bait on dating apps such as Tinder was now “more than 90 per cent of kidnappings recorded by local police”.
The victim is subjected to psychological and sometimes physical torture in order to seize his bank accounts.
In 2022 alone, anti-kidnapping officers of the Civil Police of São Paulo dealt with 94 similar cases, and arrested more than 250 suspects.
Single men over the age of 40 are the primary target for criminals.
One of the victims was a doctor working at the city’s prestigious Das Clínicas hospital, who was detained for about 14 hours in early November, after arranging a meeting through a dating app.
He was released only after the criminals carried out various banking operations of loans, purchases and transfers, with a combined value of approximately $14,000.
How you choose the victim?
The Public Security Department said in a statement that criminals study the fingerprints of their victims that they leave behind on the Internet.
“They monitor users who flaunt their financial capabilities on social networks, and arrange a meeting at a home, which is the ‘bait’.
The BBC spoke to police officers, most of whom asked not to be identified, and digital security experts to understand how these gangs operate and what are the main signs that a dating could be a trap.
The management of Tinder, the main dating app referred to by kidnapping victims, according to the officers interviewed, was contacted for comment on the security tools and methods available on the platform to prevent these scams. It has not responded to the request as of the time of writing.
A military police lieutenant working in the northern part of São Paulo explained that the victims are generally older, financially successful men.
The policeman said, “They are men over the age of forty, single and have some property. Most criminals lure the victim through Tinder with attractive messages and ask him to meet as soon as possible.”
Criminals look at the personal information that victims post on dating apps, such as their occupation. But they are especially looking for users who post pictures of their international trips or luxury cars.
“Appointments are usually set in remote neighborhoods between the end of the afternoon and the beginning of the evening,” the lieutenant explained.
“In one of the cases I followed, a man tried to arrange a meeting with a woman in a shopping mall, but she argued that she was sick and that she felt sorry for not being able to leave the house and meet with him, and he ended up going to her, to the place from which he had been kidnapped.”
Each gang operates according to the expectations of the victim. Usually the men are not looking for a long relationship, but for a casual encounter.
The policeman added, “Dating usually takes place one or two days after the first contact through the app. The man is convinced that the woman is ‘ready for that’.”
Another police officer said he believes “many dating app kidnappings” go unreported for several reasons.
Firstly, victims are often ashamed to go to the police to file a report.
Another major reason is that some men are married or have female partners, and tell them that they were victims of ordinary kidnappings to avoid revealing what they were up to.
What surprised one officer was the frequent kidnapping of wealthy and educated men who had fallen into these traps because they had agreed to go to remote neighborhoods for romantic encounters.
In most cases, the victim’s disappearance is not reported until after relatives contact the police.
The policeman said, “One of the family members notices that the person has disappeared, so he worries about him. I did not find two victims being detained in the same place, but the area was the same. Sometimes kidnappings take place in the woods.”
Guilherme Alves, a digital security specialist at SaferNet, a Brazilian NGO that tackles cybercrime, said that dating apps are often used by criminals to commit scams outside the platform itself.
He added: “The important point is to understand the responsibility of the platform. What happens outside of it is beyond the scope of the company, but it is possible to request information from the fraudster’s profile in court, if there is any crime.”
Alves also noted that in some cases, scammers do not use fake photos and profiles, but real people to victimize. They send voice messages and real pictures of the person the victim is talking to.
But the expert drew attention to the existence of some common features.
“If it is an online scam (where a fake identity is created on the internet), then the profile is already fake and the criminal might try to lure the person to another platform like WhatsApp.
Sometimes the scammer may claim to have deleted their profile from the platform under the pretense that they want something serious.”
Elvis has identified several warning signs of meeting someone else on a dating app and intends to arrange a face-to-face meeting.
The cybersecurity expert said: “Deleting the profile from the platform after the first meeting can indicate that the person wants to hide information. Another point is when people who want to arrange meetings very quickly leave the chat platform and migrate to WhatsApp. Meetings should also be avoided. in private places.
He recommends that people ideally keep records of all conversations and hold meetings in public places where there are a lot of people, such as shopping malls. Alves also noted that scammers may start operations after a few encounters rather than a one-time encounter.
“In one of the cases I saw, the victim was female. She met the fraudster twice, but he robbed her and disappeared the third time,” recalls Alves.
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