Protect your PIN, says cyber security expert after online dating scam

A cyber security expert says the online dating scam that targeted dozens of gay men was a brazen and unusual fraud.

Accused would steal PIN number, then debit and credit cards from victims

Police explain how the dating scam worked


5 years ago
Const. Chris Liew tells the media how PIN numbers and credit cards were stolen from victims in the dating scam. The thefts occurred in Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver. 0:45

A cyber security expert says the online dating scam that targeted dozens of gay men was a brazen and unusual fraud.

Two Calgary men have been charged in connection to the scam, which involved targeting men on online gay dating sites, and then stealing their PINs and credit or debit cards after meeting in person.

In an age where the internet allows for so much anonymity, cyber security expert Tom Keenan said it's unusual that the accused in these cases actually met their victims in person. 

"Often that's where it ends," said Keenan, a professor at the University of Calgary, of online interactions. "You have these online frauds, like on Facebook where you make a new friend, and even before you have a chance to meet that new friend, they have an emergency and they need money."

"Well these guys did it differently," Keenan said of the alleged Calgary fraudsters. "They met in real life. They went out for coffee with the victims. They let the victims buy them movie tickets and while the victims were buying those things they were watching the fingers." 

Police have already laid charges in eight cases, and say charges are pending in another six to eight cases in Vancouver.

New technology, old technique

The act of sneaking a look at someone's PIN or personal information while it's being typed is called "shoulder surfing," Keenan explained.

And it's nothing new.

Cyber author Tom Keenan says you can take simple steps to protect yourself from online frauds. (CBC)

"Years and years ago I went to Grand Central Station in New York and noticed that there was a row up on the balcony of guys with telescopes," Keenan recalled.

They were watching people's fingers as they typed in the numbers for their calling cards on payphones, he explained. 

Protect your PIN

Keenan said sometimes the simplest way to protect yourself from would-be scammers is to cover your PIN.

But he said some higher-tech, biometric options — the use of measurable physical characteristics, such as facial features, to confirm identity — could also help keep your personal information safe. 

"It's not going to solve anything, but it'll certainly make it harder," Keenan said. "There's always going to be bad guys looking for ways to get around it but biometrics probably will at least supplement, if not replace, passwords."

And of course, a little common sense and caution can go a long way, he added.

"Definitely meet in a public place for your first meeting," he said. "Realize that people are not always what they [seem] like."