DAPM: Detecting and Preventing Mass-Marketing Fraud (MMF)

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leicester
Department Name: Media and Communication


Fraud can be broadly defined as trickery used to gain a dishonest advantage, usually financial, over another person or organisation. Mass-marketing fraud (MMF) is a type of fraud that exploits mass communication techniques (e.g., email, Instant Messenger, bulk mailing, social networking sites, telemarketing) to con people out of money. It is a scam that targets victims in most countries. The 419 or 'Nigerian' scam is one example. In this scam the fraudster requests upfront fees with the promise that the victim will recover large sums of money in return for little effort. However, not all mass-marketing frauds con the victim with the promise of making large sums of money. In the romance scam, for example, the criminal pretends to develop a romantic relationship with the victims and later requests money to help them, especially in a crisis. In the charity scam, victims believe they are giving money to a genuine charity.

The proposed project will develop novel techniques to detect and prevent MMF. Through its multi-disciplinary approach and close focus on co-designing the solutions with its range of project partners and testing them in-the-wild during live MMF-detection settings, the project will lead not only to new scientific understanding of the anatomy of MMF but also to tools and techniques that can form the basis of practical interventions in tackling such fraud.

Working with partners outside of academic is crucial to the success of this project. Over the years various types of organisations have worked hard to detect and prevent MMF (often in silos) - with some methods appearing to be somewhat effective. Nonetheless, the numbers of victims do not appear to be dissipating. Awareness campaigns have succeeded in alerting the public to this particular crime; however, it is difficult to know if they have reduced the potential number of victims (especially, given that many victims are aware of the crime prior to becoming victims; see Whitty, 2013, in press). Prosecution for this particular crime is very resource intensive, and its effects on crime reduction are unknown. We have chosen partners (national and international) who have specialities in different fields including: law enforcement, intelligence, third sector, and industry. They have different knowledge to share and also can potentially tackle the problem using different methods (e.g., industry can screen out and detect fraudsters, law enforcement can trace criminals and raise awareness, third sector can implement methods to protect citizens and to make them more resilient).

From an academic perspective, a multi-disciplinary approach increases our chances of detection and prevention of this crime. Understanding the types of people susceptible, the situational conditions that make a person more vulnerable, and the methods and materials (e.g., online profiles, messages, communication methods) used to convince the target that the interaction is authentic and persuade them into giving up their money to a fraudster is crucial in the development of methods to combat this problem. Combining this knowledge with more technical knowledge provides us with a much greater capability to detect and prevent. For example, technical indicators, such as phone numbers, IP addresses, links to stolen identity material, stylistic patterns of persuasive messaging provide a much richer understanding of the crime and provides a greater number of variables to assist in detection. In addition, any tool developed in detection of MMF needs to convince the end-user of the likelihood that they are being scammed (which is especially difficult when the criminal is attempting to persuade the victim to believe otherwise). Given this an HCI approach is crucial when developing usable approaches and messages that persuade the potential victim that they are interacting with a criminal. Finally, we need to consider the ethics of the type of personal data we might utilise to detect and prevent MMF.

Planned Impact

This project has been designed to have maximum societal and economic impact, both nationally and internationally. Notably, we have 16 partners involved, all of whom would benefit from the programme; however, we envisage much further reach beyond our partners (many of which are willing to disseminate beyond their organisations). The beneficiaries and how they will benefit are listed below:

Law enforcement/intelligence: Law enforcement and intelligence agencies included in this project span various countries including: UK (City of London Police, Action Fraud, National Fraud Intelligence Bureau), USA (Federal Trade Commission), Canada (Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre, Royal Canadian Mounted Police), and Australia (Western Australian Police). The work co-created here will help them with tracing criminals and collecting appropriate forensic evidence to help increase chances of successful prosecution and social legitimacy that arise as a consequence. Law enforcement agencies are also keen to support 'disruption strategies'; that is, find ways to prevent individuals from becoming scammed in the first place and to reduce the scale of those frauds that occur. The work here contributes to this agenda.

Regulatory bodies: Regulatory bodies are public authority or government agencies responsible for exercising autonomous authority over some area of human activity in a regulatory or supervisory capacity - some also work as prosecuting bodies. In the main they codify and enforce rules and regulations and impose supervision for the benefit of citizens. Some sectors set up their own bodies to regulate that sector, setting up codes of practices. We have a number of such bodies as partners on our project (national and international), including: Trading Standards, National Trading Standards Board, Online Dating Association, Federal Trade Commission and Australian Competition & Consumer Commission. The work conducted in this project will help develop guidelines and practices that the organisations can enforce or promote via self-regulation.

Industry: Many different types of industry are affected by MMF, given that scammers inhabit their sites and/or target their clients. This ultimately can lead to a loss of earnings as well as a loss of trust to the industry partner (leading to greater financially losses). We have some industry partners (Mymateyourdate, Barclays) as well as partners who can introduce us to many more (Online Dating Association, Women's Fraud Network). Moreover, we anticipate that our findings will be of use to many industry organisations both nationally and abroad. Industry can use the work conducted in this project to prevent scammers from inhabiting their sites and victimising their clients - ultimately leading to a greater trust in their product. Moreover, one of our industry partners (Scamalytics) can use the science developed here to improve their product (as with any other organisation who develops software to detect scammers).

Third sector: We have a number of third sector organisations partners on the project, including those who work to protect industry (CIFAS, Women's Fraud Network, Fraud help desk). These partners and others (e.g., charities, community groups etc.) we envisage will be able to draw from our findings to help prevent MMF and repeat victimisation to industry as well as individuals.

UK citizens and citizens abroad: Most importantly, the work we propose here should go some way into preventing MMF - a crime with financial and often psychological impacts, which affect not only the person who has been defrauded but also those in their social networks (family, friends). Moreover, the methods to protect these individuals will consider their rights and attitudes to privacy when choosing personal data for use in detection and prevention tools. Citizens will be included in studies throughout the project.


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Suarez-Tangil G (2020) Automatically Dismantling Online Dating Fraud in IEEE Transactions on Information Forensics and Security

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Whitty M (2019) Predicting susceptibility to cyber-fraud victimhood in Journal of Financial Crime

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Whitty MT (2018) Do You Love Me? Psychological Characteristics of Romance Scam Victims. in Cyberpsychology, behavior and social networking

Related Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Award Value
EP/N028112/1 28/07/2016 29/08/2016 £845,177
EP/N028112/2 Transfer EP/N028112/1 31/08/2016 31/12/2018 £841,965
Description 'There's a scam out there for everyone': An examination of the scammers' tricks employed in two types of mass-marketing frauds - work at home and romance scams 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact At this talk Prof Whitty presented the latest findings on the anatomies being developed and compared in the project - work at home and romance scam. The stages involved and the tricks the scammers used was highlighted, together with some suggestions on how to prevent these scams based on these findings.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL http://wrap.warwick.ac.uk/85245/
Description Workshop: Guildhall (28th October 2016) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact In October 2016 we held a 1 day workshop - where our partners (national/international) and other vested parties attended to hear more about the project and provide advise and guidance on how the project ought to proceed. We also discussed how the partners might support the project and how we will work together over the duration of the project.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016