Online Romance Scams
For Sue, life has not been a bed of roses.
The never ending ‘relationship rollercoaster’ with her ex was now a year behind her, and the separation and breakup blues were no longer churning through her mind. Sue decided it was time to contemplate a new life and future and navigating a solo and lonely passage on planet Sue was not on her radar.
Recalling her fateful internet casanova, Sue simply shrugged her shoulders and started to talk about how gullible and lonely she was at the time. “After a pretty rough divorce I started to get more into the Facebook world and truly thought it was safe.” She friended “Frank”, without verifying his bogus claim that they had a mutual friend. “He would read my wall, I would read his wall. We would post things, he would like things. Then it got to where we would share e-mails”.
“He really knew how to make me feel good, to feel wanted” she recalled. “He took an interest in my life and after just a few online chats and Skype calls he talked about ‘our’ future together”. “It was all so convincing at the time” she recalled.
Frank explained to Sue that he too was a lonely Aussie stuck overseas dealing with a troubled business in a foreign country. They communicated regularly by email, online chats and the occasional Skype call. He would send her small gifts and would even write the odd bit of poetry. “It really was very charming and touching at the time, I had no idea I was been groomed by a scammer”.
But not surprisingly, Frank started to mention, intermingled with his ‘undying love’ for her, the problems his business was facing borrowing the “crucial finance to keep it alive”.
Sue, being a kind soul, asked whether she could help. “It started with a small request for $700 to pay a shortfall in his rent, but then the requests were getting bigger as he explained the peril his business was in”. “I got sucked in… but I also was falling in love”.
After depleting her savings the scammer then asked for funds to travel to Australia and visit Sue. “Despite my growing skepticism I still wired the money because I thought meeting Frank would resolve my concerns”.
Frank never did make it ‘home’ to Melbourne, and after the money was sent, never contacted Sue again.
The final cost for her – $220,000.
But it wasn’t just about the money for Sue, it was more the untold amount of heartache in being lied to by a man she never met or had the chance to confront who left her self esteem in tatters and a lingering distrust which she holds to this day about potential relationships.
Cyber criminals aren’t looking for love
And with romance scammers, no matter how good they sound, things aren’t what they appear to be. In reality, you’re probably talking to a criminal sitting in a cybercafe with a well-rehearsed script he (or she) has used many times before. These scammers hunt through chat rooms, dating sites and social networking sites searching for victims, looking to cash in on romance. And your odds of meeting one of these creatures from the swamp is even higher if you are over 40, recently divorced, a widow, elderly or disabled. The more vulnerable you are, the more you become potential prey for the romance scammers.
The psychological tricks used to lure their victims like in Sue’s case poetry and inexpensive gifts get you under their spell, and once you’re smitten, they will look at ways to extract every penny from you while all the time declaring their undying love.
Romance scams = big bucks
Romance scams are big business in Australia. Scamwatch, Australia’s leading authority on scammers, noted that in 2015 over 4100 reports were filed about romance scams. In 24% of cases this resulted in the victim losing money with the financial damage that year being a mind blowing at $24.4 million dollars.
In general, most people using the internet to hook up are genuine but the sad reality that for every real profile you see, there are numerous false ones pretending to be your perfect mate and using the enormous cache of photographs of people available to be downloaded on the net. The people in the photographs are as much victims as those like Sue who get scammed for hundreds or thousands dollars. Internet romance scams and other related crimes are affecting and ruining lives throughout the world. So what measures can you take to prevent this happening in the first place?
Resources to stop love scammers in their tracks
So if you’re feeling a little (or a lot) suspicious about your new love… Check the person’s profile pic. Do an image search of your admirer to help determine if they really are who they say they are. You can use image search services such as Tineye or Google Images There is no charge for this service, you give it an image and it will tell you where the image appears on the web.
So if “John” says he’s in “Brisbane” and the search reveals it’s a guy called “Fredrick” in Berlin you might like to give that person a miss.
Trace their emails
Readnotify tracks an email and will let you know where it was sent, whether it was diverted from another location, and when it was opened. Readnotify offers a free trial and has a good review on Lifewire.
Spokeo does reverse search emails, has a background check service that researches people by email. It also does checks for the email address or details you provide for the suspected scammer across more than 30 different social network sites. You have to pay for this one. For example, you can sign up and pay casual 1 month user fee for $13.95 [US]
Here’s how you can avoid being scammed
Run a Google Image or other search (as previously mentioned) to check the authenticity of any photos provided as scammers often use fake photos they’ve found online.
Be very wary if you are moved off a dating website as scammers prefer to correspond through private emails or the phone to avoid detection.
Beware if the individual promises to meet in person but then always comes up with an excuse why he or she can’t. If you haven’t met the person after a few months, for whatever reason, you have good reason to be suspicious.
Don’t share intimate or nude photos, or use webcams in an intimate setting. The ACCC has received reports of scammers using such photos or webcam recordings to blackmail victims.
The biggest warning sign is when a scammer asks you for money.
Never provide your financial details or send funds to someone you’ve met online. Scammers particularly seek money orders, wire transfers or international funds transfer as it’s rare to recover money sent this way.
Washing cupid’s dirty laundry?
Sometimes the scammer will send you valuable items such as laptop computers and mobile phones, and ask you to resend them somewhere. They will invent some reason why they need you to send the goods but this is just a way for them to cover up their criminal activity.
Alternatively, they may ask you to buy the goods yourself and send them somewhere. You might even be asked to accept money into your bank account and then transfer it to someone else. So be Warned, the above scenario is very likely to be a form of money laundering which is a criminal offence. Never agree to transfer money for someone else.
Used a credit card to pay a scammer?
If you think you have fallen victim to a scammer, contact your bank or financial institution immediately. You may be able to seek a chargeback from your bank or credit card provider. A chargeback is a reversal of a charge on your credit card and is similar to a refund. For more information, find out how to Chargeback.
But don’t delay if you are going to try this.
What can the police do to help?
These sort of scams that use email, web sites, chat rooms or message boards to present fraudulent solicitations to prospective victims are ‘online fraud’. Online fraud is the responsibility of your local state or territory police. So you can get assistance from police in the state or territory where the scammer has committed the crime or in the state or territory where the you were scammed- this includes situations where the offender is located overseas.
However, remember that when some anonymous trickster is using a computer to hide behind, the hardest thing to find out is who they are. You might be able to locate where in the world their computer is being used. But it’s identifying who they actually are that’s the hard part. That is why so often in Australia these scammers remain at large.
Reporting to Police
In many cases where a person loses money, it will not be a criminal, but a civil matter. Particularly when a matter involves breaches of contract or non-payment of debts. Police cannot investigate civil matters. Police only investigate criminal matters in order to charge offenders and place evidence before a court. Civil action is the most appropriate method of recovering money and it is recommended a person consults with a solicitor if this is the case. If the complaint and supporting information supports a finding that a criminal offence may have been committed, then the matter will be referred for investigation.
To report a matter with police about fraud and theft call your local police – call 131 444
And of course you can also chose to not go the police but instead file a report with our National Scamwatch.
Your evidence checklist
It is useful to gather the following information if you go to the police:
- Your details – including name, date of birth, age, address, phone number, email and employment details.
- Summary of allegations – prepare a summary of events in chronological order that forms the basis of your complaint. Include times, dates, places and any conversations or interaction with suspect regarding the complaint.
- Evidence – include a brief description of the evidence which support the events described.
- Suspect/offender – if you suspect a particular individual, provide details such as date of birth, age, address, phone number, email… and employment details if you know them.
- Witnesses – provide details of any witnesses, including name, address, phone number and a brief summary why this person is a witness.
- Document/exhibits – provide copies (copies only) of documents or exhibits which support the complaint. This may include, but not limited to, banking records, business records, receipts, contracts, invoices, internet content, phone records, and audit reports.
If you are suffering financial stress due to money lost in a scam, you can call the toll-free National Debt Helpline on 1800 007 007.
Beyondblue provides support for people suffering from depression or anxiety. Call the hotline 24/7 on 1300 22 46 36.
Lifeline runs a 24-hour suicide prevention and crisis support hotline – 13 11 14.
“In the old days, a con man would be good looking, suave, well dressed, well spoken and presented themselves real well. Those days are gone because it’s not necessary. The people committing these crimes are doing them from hundreds of miles away.”
(The con artist Leonardo DiCaprio played in ‘Catch Me If You Can’)