This post has been percolating for a week or two, with some debate in my head as to whether I should write it. But I've been snarking about it already on facebook, and maybe getting it out of my head will help. :)
So I've been at least testing the waters of dating sites again, at the very least looking for more practice with "first dates" and the like. The sites I've been picking have both local people and people from other countries. And of course, with my Russian studies, I've always considered the possibility that I might find someone from another country to date or fall in love with. I won't debate whether long distance dating a good idea or not -- I feel like I've had that conversation with a few people and that I have a good handle on the pros, cons, risks and rewards. (From my perspective, in brief, I have an open mind: it is possible to find a good and fulfilling relationship with someone here or someone half-way around the world; I'm not limiting myself any single possibility).
But one of the risks of long-distance relationships and dating sites is dating scams -- that you aren't talking to the person you think you are, just a filthy scammer trying to take your money. That's what I'm going to ramble about today. Mostly, to describe what most of them look like and how to detect and avoid them. Yes, I've studied security thinking, why do you ask?
One of the debates about posting things like this is that it is a potential tool to build a better scam. If someone can get past these guidelines, could they scam me? I suppose it is possible, but honestly, it requires too much work to accomplish. Meaning, I would have to attract an extraordinary scammer.
To date, I've ever been successfully scammed by an online scammer. The scams I've seen someone try to pull on me are all pretty similar. They move quickly (3-5 emails), try for emotional attachment, and then try to get you to send money. Often, they use hardships to gain sympathy. I think like many scams, they prey on weakness. Much of the cure, from my perspective, is to be strong, to know what you need to believe that a relationship is real, and to rarely compromise much on those beliefs.
Briefly, the typical pattern I've seen is:
1. Spammed intro email: "Hi, I'm CUTE_EASTERN_EUROPEAN_GIRL. I think you sound like a wonderful person! Please write to me at EVIL_SCAMMER@some_domain".
2. If you write to them, they send the first letter, almost always a pre-written note. It will almost always come with 3 photos. (Rarely 2 or 4 -- I don't know why this is. I've joked that someone must sell a scammer kit). Often, the photos are model-quality professional photos.
3. You exchange 2-3 emails, each from the girl will sound like she's more and more attracted to you. Each will usually have new photos. Often, the photos will get more racy as time goes by (rarely explicit nudity tho).
Depending on the skills of the scammer, these notes will either be very form-letter like, or they might be half-and-half, meaning they will say a few things in reply to your questions/comments, and then the rest is their existing scam latter. Often, you will notice a big quality difference between the answers to your questions and these other sections. The spontaneous content is of lower quality.
4. You receive an email that effectively is asking for money. For example, "I lost my bag with all my stuff I need for work. Now what will I do?!" or "Your girl is using our translation service and can no longer afford to pay for this service. If you wish to continue to correspond, you can work with us to establish an account for her."
The thing is, this is a VERY quick escalation and ramp up. They aren't trying to keep a mark on the hook for months, they are looking for the score and the brush off.
So, how to defend against this. I've got a few thoughts here.
1. Don't look for online long-distance dating at all. Ignore all introductory emails if they come from another country. Honestly, that's the best defense.
Better to look for personal introductions, friends of friends. Hell, that's usually true for local dating also.
2. Be strong. Don't trust so quickly. Really, do you want to be with someone who is telling you how amazing you are after two emails? Real relationships take time to develop, and I think you need to see deeds, not just words.
You must keep some level of skepticism about anyone that you haven't met in person. If someone seems too good to be true, they probably are not a real person. Hell, even in person, I think people need to demonstrate their trustworthiness.
3. Use google image search on every photo. Probably 3/4 of the scams I've seen use photos of lesser known celebrities or models, so a google search finds the real person fairly quickly.
The more professional ALL her photos are, the more likely it is that this is a scam. Come on, not everyone manages to get perfect lighting in every shot. Most girls will not have professional lingerie shots.
4. Use google search on the email address she's using. There are also web pages specifically devoted to scams and tracking email and IP addresses. The scammers don't usually create burner addresses for each mark.
5. Use google image search on some of the text in the email, usually scammers will reuse some of the same text. Again, the scammers have to be efficient or it isn't worth their while.
6. Ask early to skype or use some other video chat service. This way you can see a real person talking to you. Most scammers will refuse here, saying it is too expensive or they have some other problem to prevent it.
Phone calls are a possible second place, but are still not very good at gauging whether someone is real. And I've seen at least one person that I detected using photos, but was otherwise interested in talking on the phone.
As a VERY distant third, ask for a personal photo or video that shows something specific for you. In other words, something that if they were a real person, they could go take a photo that matches some desire of yours or has a personal message in it. Something that can't be photoshopped.
My experience is that all of these attempts will fail. They lost their phone. The war has damaged the internet so they can't send video. They can't afford to pay the translation service. And so on and so on. It is distantly possible that some of these excuses are legitimate, but all of them? Unlikely.
For what it is worth, skype is not simply a good tool for detecting scammers. I think it is a great tool for establishing real relationships if you are trying for something long distance. We are visual creatures, and crave body language from our partners.
7. Time: I think most of these scammers are trying for short-term rewards, if they can play the whole scam in 2 weeks, it is a win for them. So if you are clear that you need time to build a real relationship, they will probably rush their game, send notes that are off in tone, or just leave.
For example, recently, I had been contacted by someone. I made it clear in my first email that I wanted skype. She said she didn't (internet problems). I said that there are too many scammers, and without something tangible, it would be difficult to build the trust required for a relationship. . I got two messages asking why I didn't trust her (while she of course, trusted me with all her heart), and then the scammer moved on to the "you need to pay for translation services if you want to keep talking to her). I think the last email was the only one where the scammer was back "on script".
8. Avoid deep personal information that can be used against you. Of course, you wouldn't give your social security number to anyone. But avoid other information that can be used against you. For example, don't say you are going on vacation or out of the house or anything like that.
One site I saw had a good set of rules: don't use photos on dating sites that are also used on other social media. In other words, google image search can be used against you, the mark, as well. I don't think I've seen much evidence of this in practice, but it is out there.
At some level of paranoia, use a different phone number or an anonymous email address. Or at least a different email address that you don't mind abandoning. (I use a different email address for friends than I use for dating sites).
9. Ask questions that require answers that are hard to write as boilerplate. I don't have any great examples offhand. Honestly, the best thing I've found to throw them off their game is simply to talk about how difficult trust is and to ask them to show you something real. They can't do it.
Anyway, that's a list of specific things I've considered, but also just reiterating general principles: be skeptical, be honest, be cautious. Give someone a chance to prove themselves to you, and don't accept it when they can't. (There's another lesson here in life, which is how to avoid putting up barriers that are so high that no one can get past them, but that's a different kind of problem, one I'm still calibrating for myself. Trust is like a well-cooked egg, neither too runny or too rubbery).
Had some morning discussion about horror gaming and FATE (a system I'm poking at quite a bit right now). There's some overlap with my previous post on violence in games.
There's two thoughts I'm working on today.
#1 How to make horror games interesting without making them a gunbunny game or a pure victim game. For me, horror games should permit the players to be heroic in some senses of the word; they can decide to put themselves in harms way or try to stop something terrible from happening. This might be turning the tables on a monster stalking them, for example.
#2 Interesting hacks and gamemastering techniques in FATE to pull off a more 'grounded' approach.
I often find myself ambivalent to horror gaming. It isn't a genre I run exclusively nor one that I hate. I prefer to use horror elements in other games because the unexpected makes those elements more potent. Part of my negativity is that so many of horror games fall into uninspiring subgenres.
Gunbunny gaming is what I call a totally tactical take on horror. There are zombies/cthulhian horrors/vampires, and we need to take them out, preferably with big guns and big explosives. Many early CoC games I played fell into this pattern, because that was an era of gaming where tactical play against an adversarial GM was the norm; you were rewarded for good tactical play, not good roleplaying. We need to investigate A,B, and C, then get the dynamite, then blow up the cultists. We'll lose a character to madness, because apparently seeing anything bad causes insanity. Enough sessions with that pattern, and I needed to move on.
The other extreme generally comes when the players are made powerless against the monsters, often as a reaction to gunbunny games. Dynamite doesn't work. Guns don't work. Nothing works. Keep running. A feeling of powerlessness is critical to psychological horror, but past a certain point at the table, it stops being fun. There needs to be some way to turn the tables on the monsters.
What I want at the table is a mix of elements. The PCs are normal joes, not superheroes. The darkness can be fought, but not on even footing, and there will be consequences. You can't fight what's out there without being changed by it. Going into a situation with overconfidence will get you killed. Swagger is right out.
FATE has a reputation (somewhat deserved) as being a game that goes over the top. Some of this comes from its early incarnation in Spirit of the Century, a pulps setting. But, frankly, a lot of FATE con games also fall into a pattern: the players get beat up along the way (but not very much), there are complications based on who they are, but they make it to the final scene and UNLOAD with all the fate chips they've been hoarding. The big boss(es) wither under incredible damage rolls, because in FATE it is usually better to hit a villain with one big attack than to wear them through stress damage.
The thing is, I think you can ground FATE games without rewriting the core rules. I've seen tons of interesting ideas in FATE Codex and other FATE Core derived games. FATE is pretty flexible, and it so much of how it plays depends on how you use the tools you've been given.
One well-worked example comes from Tianxia, a wuxia game set in fantasy ancient China. The section on martial arts offers a suggestion that simply by changing descriptions and how you define zones on the map, you can either take a grounded approach (martial artists still obey the laws of physics) or a fantasy approach (players can fly from building to building). Mechanically, you use the same tools but for different kinds of scenes.
Here are some thoughts on using FATE to run more "grounded" games. I think these apply well for horror games but could work in almost any setting that you wanted to ground a bit more in reality.
Realistic aspect phrases - An aspect is "always in effect" so it represents something that is true about a character, a situation, or the story. So my first item is simply to police how aspects are named. Allowing "Psychic CIA assassin" as a high concept immediately changes the tone of the game to something more powers based. "Curious Housewife, mother of Two" or "Science Nerd" has a different tone; these are normal people! Maybe in a horror game of identity, enforcing a PC's relationships to the other PCs through aspects ends up important; something enforced during character generation. Ask for aspects related to the kinds of games you want to run. If you want the characters to be in conflict with each other, make sure they have aspects that give them differing goals or approachs.
Character's level of comfort with violence - An explicit reference to my last post: can your character act violently? How does he or she consider violence? If confronted with actual horror, will they freeze up? Again, make it an aspect, and make it clear.
Compels, Consequences, and Concessions - As far as I'm concerned, the three C's and how you apply them during play will set the tone for a game session. In a horror game, ruthlessly compelling the PCs feels entirely in scope. When the players decide to make a stand against the truly terrible beings, maybe they should have to pay that fate point for the priviledge. Elaborating: In a normal game, often GMs only offer compels that they expect the player to take; if the players are buying off compels often, that's usually considered in a failure. In a horror game, it might be a feature.
Consequences offer the opportunity to add new elements to a person's character. Consequences open up new ways to compel a character; meaning that the PC loses some control of how their character acts and who their character is. "Twisted ankle" means you might be able to keep the character for getting away. "Startled by loud noises" gives you something to hit the character with an appropriate moment.
"Bitten by a zombie" is a fascinating aspect -- the latest FATE Codex goes into a lot of detail about some of the ways this aspect can be compelled, and how to define a zombie setting. I loved the ideas there. "Dracula's latest conquest" could also be an amazing consequence, setting up all sorts of interesting compels at the wrong time. These two aspects and things like them could easily be used to erode trust between the PCs. Keep the PCs from showing a united front!
And finally, concessions. When the heroes concede a fight, make things worse. A lot worse. It is okay to root for the villain. I touch on a few ideas related to this below.
Changing the character's aspects - I still think that the biggest innovation that Dresden Files brought to FATE was an expansion of changing a character's aspects either voluntarily or involuntarily. Often, these are the result of a situation (extreme consequences) or a choice (black magic). Use black magic enough and it starts to color your personality; you are changed by the experience.
I think any game where story is important should also have the characters changing over time. Not simply getting stronger, but getting changed by events. While I'm still not a fan of random insanities (a la Call of Cthulhu), I am 100% on board with trauma changing the characters. Make it hard for them to function. In many ways, this is taking some concepts in consquences and making them more permanent. You have changed who the character is.
Obviously, this works best if the players are on board and being creative in how they change the aspects. But given the situation, you are allowed to say "no, that's not enough, make it worse."
Megastunts - Atomic Robo has some rules for strong stunts and aspects. Make some monsters explicitly immune or resistant to common attacks. One interesting concept is that just because I'm immune to bullets, it just means the bullets can't hurt me. But a gun might let me create a boost long enough to get away. That's totally in line with horror storytelling. You rob certain actions of their power, but you don't eliminate those actions entirely.
It is okay for players to fail - GUMSHOE introduced a mechanic that guarantees success for certain player actions, namely clue-finding actions that would derail a game if they fail. FATE has a milder approach for this, which is the concept of "success at a cost", meaning the players might succeed at a task but they pay for it in stress, consequences, or other problems (you can think of this as similar to a compel). My goto examples here are "you find the clue but the bad guys are alerted", "you find the clue but are attacked", "you find the clue, but it took longer than expected, giving you less time to take advantage of it."
But...just because FATE has success with complications doesn't and shouldn't mean that every action the players take needs to be a success. Rooting for the PCs does not mean that adventures become golden paths of repeated successes. Adventures should allow the players to fail at challenges...and maybe those failures make things a lot worse. When the players get "success at a cost", the cost should have real bite. These aren't the zany antics of slapstick comedy, these costs are real losses or penalties. Perhaps only short-term problems, but still problems. The radio the PCs have to talk to their commander is destroyed. They lose all their food.
An obvious challenge of putting more screws to the players is that they WILL become more defensive and tactical. I'm not 100% certain how you get around that other than perhaps reminding them of who their characters are. When the High School Principle starts organizing troops into a pincer movement, you probably don't have enough setting buy in.
When I first started playing Spirit of the Century, I felt that one of the things it did was open the story to trusting the GM to tell a good story. I might accept a concession to move a story forward, but because I conceeded I get a little control over how happens. Most of the control is in the GM's hands. Getting players to accept capture or loss is often hard, but concessions reward this mechanically AND can also make for good genre-appropriate stories. But it definitely requires trust in the GM to pull those sorts of compels and concesssions off.
Tihe more bite you give concessions, the harder it will be to get players to accept those sorts of concessions. I think part of the answer is that the alternative (being taken out) is always on the table also. Being taken out doesn't mean the PC has to die, but it does mean the player doesn't get any say into what happens to them. With concessions, they still have a little power to adjust things in a way that they might be able to take advantage of down the line.
But, fundamentally, I think if you are going to run a horror game and try to work in some of these thumbscrews, you need buy-in from the players and everyone needs to trust each other at the table. The experience isn't a purely tactical one; if you want that, there are about 100 zombie boardgames on the market. The goal is for the GM to torture the players (and put them into situations where they can't all agree about what to do). But the players also need to enjoy the game.
While I think the detail I've added above is helpful, I think the basic concepts can be summarized succinctly:
* Decide on the tone you want for your game and the kind of scenes and stories you want to see.
* Make sure that what you are doing is still fun. Get buy in from the players where necessary.
* Police the game elements (aspects, stunts, map zones) to make sure they fit this tone.
* Be cruel and ruthless. FATE has plenty of thumbscrews to tighten. Don't be afraid to use these thumbscrews to set the tone, advance the villain's agenda, and to damage player characters. A victory with no lasting consequences is no victory at all!