Feature Story | 2-Apr-2024

Defensive gaming

NCSA Affiliate and UIUC iSchool research scientist Anita Nikolich is leading an effort to help you identify online scams through gamification

National Center for Supercomputing Applications

You’ve probably heard a story like this from someone you know, or perhaps it’s even happened to you. You get a random text, email or chat on your preferred social media outlet, and something about it draws you in and starts a conversation. You’re chatting seems harmless at first. This new ‘online friend’ shares hobbies with you, asks about your day and, above all, is a good listener. You grow closer. You never get the chance to meet in person. Something always comes up. But you start to think of this person as a dear friend. Maybe even something more. Months go by, and you’re starting to trust your new friend deeply. One day, they excitedly tell you about an incredible crypto investment opportunity. They show you screenshots of their earnings and encourage you, their dear friend, to take advantage of it while you can.

The above is a classic romance scam in the making. What makes it so insidious is not just how it happens. It seems impossible to you that someone would invest so much time in a scam. You know a lot of scams rely on pressure – fast responses you don’t think about, like calling you out of the blue with emergency social security card alerts. Scammers like that still exist, but the wide use of this long-con romance scam is new and relies on creating a believable online relationship to work. It’s also incredibly effective because it’s so unexpected. These types of scams can devastate the financials of the victims, but the emotional damage also carries a heavy toll. Anita Nikolich, NCSA affiliate and director of innovation, research and technology at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign iSchool, has heard many stories about scams since she began working on a phone application called DeepCover

Nikolich is one of the founders, as well as a co-PI, of the Deception Awareness and Resilience Training Collective (DART), a group that develops tools like the DeepCover app to help people recognize and navigate scams before they become ensnared in them. DeepCover is a phone game application in which users play games like Match 3, word finding, and other popular games, particularly among older adults.

Scams don’t always start with a random text. Dating sites are full of scammers in waiting. According to the FBI, scammers will use personal information from your social media to make their scams more effective.

Scamming is so commonplace it has become a half-trillion-dollar problem, with the recent Nasdaq report listing global losses to fraud reaching $485.6 billion. The report calls romance scams the fastest-growing con and lists that they caused a staggering $3.8 billion in estimated global losses with other confidence schemes in 2023. Social media is everpresent, so it’s no surprise that the largest proportion of scam victims were first contacted on their social media of choice. 

“Everybody’s got a story,” Nikolich said. “My dad didn’t have a technical background. But he’s got to be online to pay bills and communicate with people. Like many older adults, he’s embarrassed to bring up that he might have fallen for a scam. I have to reassure him, ‘Don’t be embarrassed. Scammers are good at what they do.’”

Stories like these moved Nikolich to research a way to help affected communities. Before DeepCover was targeted to older adults, Nikolich’s team planned something to help with teens and digital literacy. “The more we talked to people on the team, the more people we added, we started to realize that who gets scammed has nothing to do with education or background or language. Everybody gets scammed. But what we’re finding is that older adults have more time on their hands, which means more opportunities for scammers to find them. They lose more money to scams than any other group.”

Of those who lost money due to scams last year, $77.7 billion was linked to elderly victims, with 71% of wire fraud attempts targeted at people ages 55 or more in Q2 of 2023. “What we’ve seen,” said Nikolich, “is that Gen Z actually falls for more scams, but when it comes to the dollar value of the scam, there’s just no comparison to the harm done to older adults.”

Because people are often embarrassed when they’re scammed, Nikolich’s team needed to find a way to assist people who might wonder about scams but were too afraid to ask. “We wanted to equip people, in particular older people, to navigate digital scams. And that’s where the idea for a game came into the equation.”

The game itself mirrors many games popular with older adults. Players who enjoy Candy Crush, Wordle and other puzzle games will find much to enjoy in the DeepCover app. As the game starts, you create an agent and start a mission to help stop a scam. As you work through puzzles and prizes allowing you to customize your character, you’re given short tips about how to identify scam behavior.

“The game is currently in beta,” said Nikolich, “What we’re hoping is that the repetitive nature of the really short tips like, ‘If something feels off or wrong to you, it probably is.’ helps it stick in player’s minds. We bake in this repetition so they’ll understand the terminology and know how to ask for advice. The repetition around the gameplaying helps keep the lessons from feeling like an overwhelming amount of information. We want them to come away with a feeling that if they find themselves in trouble or pressured to do something they’re not sure of, they should hang up and call a family member and ask for help. We want them to recognize when they’re encountering these situations.”

Nikolich didn’t work on this project alone. Nikolich met DART co-PI Siwei Lyu, a computer science and engineering professor at the University of Buffalo, in 2019 while involved with making an election-themed deepfake for the DEFCON AI Village, a “community of hackers and data scientists working to educate the world on the use and abuse of artificial intelligence in security and privacy.” She recruited Lyu to create a deepfake of the Democratic National Committee Chair. Nikolich kept in touch with Lyu and other people who worked on that project; eventually, conversations moved to the realm of tackling scams, and the team struck upon the idea of a game. Then, it was natural to bring on Dan Cermak, game studies coordinator at UIUC’s School of Informatics.

With the team built and an idea in hand, it was time to talk to some experts on cybercrime. They reached out to NCSA’s cybersecurity team to help them understand what the current trends in cybercrimes were. Scams are constantly evolving to bypass security measures.

“We approached the folks at NCSA,” Nikolich said, “asking about some of the most common techniques and tactics, especially in social engineering and phishing, which you find to be very common. They look at scams at such a large scope and scale at the university. They are responsible for securing this huge infrastructure and have a concentrated population of people all using these resources, so they have seen it all. ”

Scammers are incredibly adaptable – that’s why Nikolich’s team considers the gaming app an ongoing project with planned updates. DART hopes to get funding from like-minded organizations to continue the project; they’re adamant they don’t want to start charging for the game to keep it going. Eventually, DART would like to expand the game by localizing it for other countries, but that also requires research. “The next language that we’re going to target is Spanish,” said Nikolich. “But it’s not a one-to-one translation. The scams are different in different countries, and the cultural approaches need to fit. We need to bake those differences into the game’s message, and that’s part of our roadmap plans in terms of sustainability.”

For now, Nikolich hopes DART’s efforts shine a brighter light on the romance scam problem. “One of the reasons we’re focusing on romance scams is this is something that the scammers are very good at. It’s not so obvious that it’s a scam. So there’s lots of tips within the game. We tell people if the person never talks to you, or if they never turn the camera on, or they always avoid seeing you in person – these are all danger signs. But romance scams are becoming a huge issue because it’s a long game, sometimes three, six, nine months before they even touch your money. It’s so easy to get caught up in this scam.

“We also hope people pass this information on to someone they know, no matter how old they are. Pass it along to a loved one, a friend, a neighbor, or somebody they think could use it. And don’t be embarrassed if you think you’ve been scammed. The speed of reporting is important to prevent further harm. If you think you might have been scammed, tell somebody quickly.”

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