Romance scam

Romance scammer deepfakes Mark Ruffalo to con elderly artist

Deepfakes have settled into a groove, as most scam techniques do. It seems most deepfakers have decided to make as much cash as possible from unsuspecting victims instead of doing anything particularly earth-shattering with their technology.

One curious twist we may not have seen coming is the mashup of deepfake and romance scam, though this is a natural fit in many ways. Create a fictional entity, move from email to bogus video communications, and extract funds via wire transfer or a money-centric app.

You would expect to find scammers trying to keep their deepfakery as believable as possible, and yet it seems you can be anyone you want to be in Deepfake land and still make off with a tidy haul.

As such, we have a romance scam involving a victim handing over a small fortune, and a digital version of Incredible Hulk actor Mark Ruffalo.

A poisonous romance

Manga artist Chikae Ide’s new work, Poison Love, is a summary of her experience with the aforementioned Ruffalo fakeout. What’s interesting here is how the scam evolved from a fairly standard Facebook romance scam, to something making full use of digital technology perhaps long before other fakers decided to jump on the Deepfake train.

It’s still somewhat inexplicable that the scammers went with an incredibly recognisable Hollywood actor, given the numerous ways a victim could have figured out something was amiss. Even so, the faker went with flattery and exploited the author who used translation software to converse in English. Ide, still a little unsure, wanted proof that “Ruffalo” was the real deal. He responded with a half-minute video call to prove it was really him. Unfortunately for Ide, this was a faker using Deepfake technology to appear as the Hulk actor on webcam. It was enough to convince the artist to become involved in a fictional online relationship with real harm waiting in the wings.

A slow burn of money extraction began shortly after the bogus video call, and then a fake “online marriage”. CBR reports the artist said, in relation to the faker, that “…he respected my work, and he said that I, this old lady, am beautiful”. It may not sound much, but to someone in their 70s, burnt in the past by an abusive marriage, and unfamiliar with internet scams, it was just what the fake doctor ordered.

The promise of it all being too good to be true was swept away by multiple small requests for cash, which seem to have increased over time.

Counting the emotional and financial cost

In the end, it took the artist’s children to realise something was up and begin the painful process of extracting her from the scammer’s clutches. In total, 75 million Yen (roughly half a million US dollars) was wired to the fraudster, never to return.

Both her savings and those of her son were lost to the void, along with big chunks of change from work contracts and even cash earmarked for bills. This is the kind of attack which can easily wipe some folks out. In this instance, the artist can at least perhaps hope to recover some of the losses from upcoming art contracts and other client work. Most people may not have that level of financial safety net to fall back on.

The smartest deepfaker around?

This is where things become really interesting in terms of how the scam got off the ground. Keep in mind that this attack began in 2018. While pretty much everyone talking about deepfakes four years ago was largely obsessed with electoral interference, the scammer saw the real potential in deepfakery: financial plundering on a grand scale.

This individual set up a 30-second conversation with the artist, and it was enough to set aside any misgivings. Again: this is frankly remarkable considering it happened four years ago. The talking heads are all about electoral malfeasance. The actual Deepfake producers are churning out celebrity pornography. This person is using deepfakes to apparently create interactive conversations with someone about to lose a whole lot of money.

Tips for avoiding romance scams

Romance scams continue to be a major problem, and it’s very much a low effort, big reward attack which is why it pops up so frequently. Here are some of the warning signs:

  • Their profile and picture seem too good to be true.
  • They profess love and affection very quickly.
  • They share a lot about themselves in the first meeting.
  • They claim to be overseas and cannot stay in one place for long.
  • They try to lure you from whatever platform you are on to talk to you via email or video chat.
  • They claim to need money for something, which should be an immediate red flag no matter how convincing it sounds.

Here’s what you can do to keep yourself safe:

  • Don’t give scammers the information they need. Scammers rely on what you volunteer about yourself online to tweak their script and lure you in.
  • Perform an image search of the photo and the name of the person you’re in touch with. Scammers often steal someone else’s image to use as bait, and stolen identities are rife.
  • Go slow. Scammers tend to rush, building rapport with their victims as quickly as possible before moving in for the money-themed kill.
  • Never give money to anyone you’ve met online
  • If in doubt, back away and report the account.

Stay safe out there!


Christopher Boyd

Former Director of Research at FaceTime Security Labs. He has a very particular set of skills. Skills that make him a nightmare for threats like you.