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02/14/2018 | Episode 16

A Zoosk VP on Fraud and Fairytales

Love is in the air...and on the internet. Over the past five years, the number of people who use online dating sites to meet potential partners has increased threefold. But star-crossed lovers aren't the only people flocking to dating sites; fraudsters are too. On this special Valentine's Day episode, we're sitting down with Sejal Monterroso, VP of customer success at the popular dating site Zoosk. People exchange over 3 million messages on Zoosk every day. With so much personal information flying back and forth between admirers, how does Zoosk keep its customers safe? How does the site navigate its uniquely intimate fraud challenges? Luckily, Sejal has an abundance of stories to share -- including a fraud fairytale about love, Google Images, and a Turkish model.


Roxanna “Evan” Ramzipoor is a content marketing manager at Sift. Her debut novel The Ventriloquists will be released in 2019.


Evan: Welcome to Trust & Safety in Numbers, presented by Sift Science. I’m your host Evan Ramzipoor. It’s February so the aisles of your local supermarket or big-box store are blushing with Hallmark cards. Love is in the air and on the internet. That’s right. On this Valentine’s day episode, I’m chatting with Sejal Monterroso at the popular dating site Zoosk.

Sejal: I’ve actually worked at Zoosk for almost six years now, so I’m a veteran Zoosk-er.

Evan: We’ll be talking about online dating and the fraud challenges that online dating companies and users face in this uniquely intimate vertical. We’ll also hear a cautionary tale, almost a fairy tale really, about how online dating site users can be rewarded for catching catfishers. But first, let’s warm up with a quick fraud fact.

Did you know that romance scams have been reported as early as 1873? Back then, of course, fraudsters were lurking in so-called matrimonial advertisements rather than on online dating sites. To learn more, check out “5 Ways Fraud Hasn’t Changed Since the 19th Century” on the Sift Science blog. Now on to the interview. All right. So can you introduce yourself for the podcast?

Sejal: So I am VP of Customer Success and I head up customer support, image moderation teams and our fraud operations teams. But before that I’ve actually been in customer operations for over 15 years and I’ve worked for companies like AT&T, GE, Discover Card and Chase. And so I’ve really seen how fraud has evolved over time, not just from the fraudsters’ perspectives, like, how their techniques have changed, but on the much better and like, seeing how our tools and our technology have evolved so that we can protect our customers better.

Evan: Speaking of customers, people who use dating sites face pretty unique challenges compared to people on, say, an ecommerce site, in terms of the types of fraud they can expect to encounter. Can you give some examples of types of fraud that might occur on an online dating site?

Sejal: Somebody using stolen credit cards. People using stolen credentials from data breaches like Yahoo and LinkedIn. We experience all of that, but we have this added element of because of the service we provide people then can use access to those accounts to interact with our real users, and really, give them one of the worst experiences you can have on an online dating site. And so I’m sure you’ve heard of things like catfishing…

Evan: Catfishing is when a fraudster pretends to be someone they’re not, usually to earn somebody’s trust. You’ve probably heard of the Nigerian prince scam. That’s a type of catfishing scheme.

Sejal: But also a lot of times they go further to try to get money out of people, especially people in vulnerable states, just people who are very trusting even. So that’s really like, I think, the most unique challenge that we specifically have to deal with on online dating sites.

Evan: I imagine the emotional component of being on a dating site in the first place makes these instances of fraud even more challenging. If that’s the case, in what way is that so?

Sejal: And, you know, one thing we talk about a lot at Zoosk is that we’re not just a product or a service. We are really dealing with people’s hearts, you know, and one of the most sensitive, important experiences of their life in many cases. So for us, we’re sometimes dealing with divorced people who have never used an online dating site before, so they’re really even afraid and cautious, you know, so there’s that emotional element.

We’re also dealing with single parents who just don’t have a lot of time to waste and effort to waste with regard to, you know, having to sort through who’s real and who’s not. And like I mentioned before, older people who just aren’t very familiar, they’re not tech savvy, they’re not… They didn’t grow up feeling suspicious of online activity.

Evan: This is a pretty significant issue. About half the victims of online dating fraud are over the age of 40. And when each victim stands to lose about $10,000 if they get scammed, well, the stakes are high.

Sejal: Connecting with someone else can be one of the best experiences of your life. We know that we’re not just connecting profiles, we’re connecting people. And so we have to build protecting people into our strategy. For those connections to be really valuable they have to be real. They have to be authentic, they have to be things you can trust and people you can trust. And so we can’t treat things like fraud reactively. We have to be very proactive with it and we have to build it into every project that we work on.

Evan: We often think about or see online fraud from the perspective of the user who’s interacting with the site. But what does it look like from the inside? How does your team go about being proactive and working to detect and solve these fraud challenges?

Sejal: You know, at the very highest level, one of the things that I think just stands really well that I think a lot of online dating sites, other online dating sites don’t want to do is we acknowledge that these kinds of things do happen. And the reason we do that is because we know that making our customers aware informing them, educating them, is probably one of the best things we can do to fight fraud. And so it kind of feels counter to making a customer feel protected, and I think that’s why a lot of dating sites have not been doing that. But we kind of start at that level, and then just preventing the fraud from even getting on our product.

Evan: That means constantly being on the lookout for anything that seems suspicious. So bot detection, triggers for velocity or frequency of log in attempts, checking whether someone is logging in from a strange location or attempting to log in many times, which might mean they’re testing stolen credentials, and so on.

Sejal: And then there’s the reactive approach of using great tools like Sift Science, having our own internal fraud rules, and being very aware and adjusting to new patterns and new techniques that we’re seeing and doing that very often because it changes so fast and you have to stay ahead of it. So from the customer education standpoint, we’ve also created some very specific features that protect our customers. We have a photo verification feature.

Evan: It works like this. It’s actually pretty cool. When you create a profile on Zoosk, you submit a video to prove you are who you say you are. Once your video has been approved you get a badge on your profile so users can trust that your identity has been verified.

Sejal: And then we just launched this cool, new feature based on another pattern that we saw. It’s called Insignia and it’s a military verification. So one thing we know is that when people do try to scam other customers, they’re posing as military because it comes with a certain trust, you know, and a certain valor. We knew that military personalities were being used for scams, and so we created this feature that also gives real military people a way to verify that they were in the military, that they’re active in the military, and then they get a badge on their profile as well.

Evan: We touched on this a little bit, but one thing that makes online dating fraud such a challenge is that people are trusting you with sensitive, intimate information. If that information gets compromised former customers might consider this such a breach of trust that they might not be willing to use the site again. You’ve talked about some strategies, but how else does an online dating site go about earning and maintaining your users’ trust?

Sejal: I talked a little bit about like us actually putting protection of our customers, the privacy, treating their data with respect, you know, not retaining data longer than we need to. All of those things, I think, play into building trust with customers. Like with any other breach of trust you have to kind of be transparent, take accountability, and then take action from there to be better. And so, you know, Zoosk has been fortunate not to kind of go through that, those kind of things. But I’ve been a consumer and had my own data compromised or potentially compromised, and while it’s disappointing and it’s sort of scary it does go a long way to tell your customers exactly what happened, take ownership of that issue, and then really dedicate resources, features, tools and people to take a more proactive approach to it.

Evan: So instead of waiting for a data breach to happen and then scrambling to deal with the fallout or doing the bare minimum to avoid regulatory issues, companies should take a proactive approach to earning customers’ trust.

Sejal: We know that investing in our customers’ safety and making protection a priority is actually gonna pay off long term, like you said. If they feel like they can trust us and they know that we’re gonna do the right thing they will come back over and over or stay longer.

Evan: To close, I have to ask, do you have any strange or interesting stories from the world of online dating that you can share with us?

Sejal: We had a young lady who was using Zoosk, and she met a guy on our product. And they started a great online relationship and were becoming very close, but he avoided meeting her in person repeatedly. And so because she was an informed customer and she kind of had read about red flags in online dating, which I think is where the awareness comes in, she did grow kind of suspicious. And so what she did was something that any customer can do and probably should do, she just did a reverse image search on the person’s photos.

And what she found was that the photos actually belonged to a male model in Turkey, and she was located in London and thought that this guy was in London as well. And so, you know, that’s when she knew that she wasn’t talking to the person that she thought she was talking to. And really, because she was such a nice person she reached out to the model in Turkey and she told him like, “Hey, somebody is using your identity. Somebody is using your photos. I thought you should know for your safety.” And they started talking and they ended up meeting in real life, and they are now in love.

Evan: But of course, most fraud stories don’t end this way or the internet would be a far different, more innocent place.

Sejal: But I think like what I really liked about that story is just kind of the awareness piece of like, we actually have tools in our hands, you know. Like, no matter what product you’re using, what service you’re using, if you feel like something is off, if you feel suspicious of something, or you just want to be safe, we have so many things. Reserve image search, just Googling someone, checking their Facebook to see what’s out there. There are some simple things we can do in addition to all of things companies are doing for you. We really built that into our strategy going forward is we’re gonna talk about it and we’re gonna help our customers be safer and smarter through that education.

Evan: That was Sejal Monterroso at Zoosk. Thanks for joining me on this special episode of Trust & Safety in Numbers, and enjoy that discount chocolate tomorrow. Until next time, stay vigilant, fraud fighters.

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