Cristobal Fredes, our esteemed editor here at Contxto, used the popular Bumble application in Santiago, Chile. Billed as a more low-key dating app than the industry leader Tinder, the Austin, TX-based Bumble has made headway in many Latin American countries. Unlike its more notorious rival, women have the first move and must initiate conversations; Fredes matched and began corresponding with a woman who, as the days went by, seemed increasingly suspicious to him. Using another app, PimEyes, which can accurately verify the source of images, he discovered that her photos belonged to an adult film actress. These stories of false and misleading profiles on dating apps, known as catfishing, are so rampant that they begat both a documentary and “true-life’ television series (Catfish) bearing this phenomenon’s name.
Yet, in a Latin America that is growing more and more digital and connected, and is increasingly attracting tourists and expats as a result, these Tinder and Bumble scams can make a sharp turn from innocent trickery to outright robbery or even murder. While recently on a trip to Medellin, Colombia, considered by many to be the next big hub for digital nomads, I came face to face with a tourist from Nassau in the Bahamas, an aspiring digital artist named Delroy Wood. Wood risked everything to come to a country he had never set foot in and in which he speaks not a word of the local language, all for a seductive Colombian girl he met on Tinder who allegedly was vacationing in Wood’s home nation. Despite never having met up in real life, Wood trusted this unknown woman so much that he quit his steady job as a security guard and booked a trip to the South American country to be with her.
Within two days, he had lost nearly all his money, his passport and his sanity, while literally jumping out of a window to his safety. Thanks to a friendly Venezuelan hostel owner in the small, safe mountain city of Manizales, about a five-hour drive from Medellin, he was able to secure free lodging and slowly kickstart the process of getting a passport replacement and a flight back to his country. This might seem like a wild, cinematic anecdote and a mere isolated incident, but it has been something that has been increasingly reported in major, expat-filled Latin American cities like Medellin, São Paulo, Brazil and Mexico City.
Although locals are not immune to these toxic, dangerous scams (some 9 in 10 kidnappings in São Paulo, an international city of some 14 million residents, derive from dating apps) certainly foreigners who want to meet local women but often have few personal connections to the area nor understanding of the native language, are potentially more vulnerable to such situations.
Medellin, a city of 2.6 million, is most definitely emblematic of this growing trend, as it is attracting international thrill seekers left and right. Arriving at Jose María Cordova airport in the middle of the night, lone travelers from Israel, Thailand, Australia and more could be seen in line at customs, the majority unable to speak in Spanish and completely new to the area. Eager, opportunistic taxi drivers swarmed the foreign backpackers, charging rates far higher than Uber. These types of scams are clearly not limited to taxis, as forums and YouTube videos addressed at nomads in the leafy Colombian metropolis can attest to. A YouTuber with a channel called Life with David, focusing primarily on the life of an American expat in Medellin, posted a video at the tail end of 2022 detailing how deaths of nomads were apparently on the rise, often spurred by malicious profiles on dating apps that allegedly often lead to drug-and-or gun-induced violence.
The social media forum Reddit is similarly abound in stories of fake profiles, prostitution rings and unwise meet-ups that lead to spiked drinks in fashionable neighborhoods like El Poblado, the number one expat hangout in the South American city.
Contxto spoke with Life of David’s founder David Martinez about a recent rise in application-related crimes, the majority of the victims being foreigners in Colombia. A Houston-born expat who has lived in Medellin for 7 years, Martinez has noted that in recent years, as the Colombian city continues to attract more foreigners, these Tinder scams, especially aimed at male expats and tourists, have escalated. Martinez noted that if something is popular in Colombia; for example, a type of restaurant, it becomes copied over and over. The same thing has happened with these dating app schemes; criminals realize “this is an easy way to make money.” Although these crimes happen in other major, tourist cities in Colombia such as Cali or Cartagena, Martinez believes that the city has been promoted online as an ideal party city with beautiful women, which leads many foreigners to flock to Medellin and fall prey to these scams.
Martinez also believes that foreigners are often victims in these cases due to cultural reasons. Locals in Colombia know of its dangers and are less likely to meet up with strangers, especially at night over drinks. While going on a first date at a bar after talking to someone on an app might be common in the US, he noted, he believes that in Colombia this is less frequent, and therefore a “pushy” match who insists on meeting for drinks is probably a “red flag.”
Although these crimes vary in details, Martinez provided an emblematic yet extreme example; a traveler from Vietnam met up with a woman who insisted on bringing a friend. While it just seemed like common sense at first, the victim found himself passed out and fatally drugged after sipping a drink, while the “date’s” various accomplices ran off with all his belongings. Martinez’ comments were echoed by Carlos Avendaño, an Argentina-based professor and criminology expert known as an authority on cybercrimes throughout Latin America. Avendaño acknowledged that men more often than women found themselves the victims of such “sextorsion” schemes, which were often accompanied by druggings. Furthermore, Avendaño further noted the prevalence of AI-fueled bots which send sexually explicit images to lure in men using automated software.
Mexico City, with a population many times over that of Medellin, has essentially become the poster child for Latin American cities profoundly affected by digital nomads, and therefore it is no surprise that these app fraud incidents, often aimed at this very population, have run amuck in the thriving metropolis. Although previous stories mainly focused on gullible men tricked by savvy women, Mexico City is well-documented for possessing raging machismo, with buses separated by gender to avoid harassment being one of the most visible signs of this. As a result, stories of young women being robbed and even sexually assaulted when meeting up with their supposed male suitor after initiating conversations on dating apps have been exhaustively reported in recent months. In fact, according to statistics cited by the Mexican cybersecurity expert Andres Velázquez, women have been more likely to find themselves the victim of these app schemes, with 63% of victims being women who lost, on average, double the money that male victims did.
Although thus far the majority of these app-related scams and dangers are tied to traditional heterosexual dating, the homosexual dating app Grindr has also been rife with such incidents in these two cities, Medellin and CDMX especially. Although both cities are relatively liberal bastions in Catholic countries and have bustling gay scenes, as homosexuality is still viewed as a sin by many locals, these users are even more likely to be victims of corrupt scams that can often involve the police who use the app to frame potential date-goers as criminals. In addition to these potential hazards, similar to what we have seen via Tinder and Bumble, it was reported in 2019 in the Wall Street Journal that many users’ private data, everything from location and age to HIV status, had been collected and spread through the app´s database, further exposing users to various high-risk situations.
Contxto spoke to Miguel Ángel Mendoza, an expert on cybersecurity at the organization ESET Latin America in Mexico City, about the various potential risks posed by dating apps. Mendoza cautioned that so-called “phishing” schemes are common in Mexico, in which fake profiles or even bots request a verification code of a match in order to steal pertinent information from the user. These fake profiles are abundant on these apps, Mendoza affirmed, making it a necessity for users to attempt to use Google to verify the veracity of these accounts. Mendoza also told users to beware of “sextorsion,” a widespread but serious crime that starts with the typical “sexting” and nude requests but can lead to what is essentially sexual abuse and exploitation. Finally, Mendoza acknowledged that many economic scams occur through these apps, in which victims who are simply trying to find a romantic partner are then stripped of all their money.
That is exactly what happened to an unsuspecting Delroy Wood in Medellín.
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