Lovelorn Australians were fleeced of more than $60 million in 2018 through the “meanest, nastiest, and most horrific” con of all – dating and romance scams.
Scammers squeezed $489.7 million from hapless victims last year – an increase of 44 per cent on 2017 – through a slew of underhanded tactics, including threats of violence or arrest, hacking and more.
While investment scams extracted the most money from the nation ($86 million), it was the $60.5 million lost to dating scams that ACCC deputy commissioner Delia Rickard said was the most abhorrent.
“It’s the scam that upsets me the most out of all of them because it doesn’t just financially devastate people, it emotionally devastates people too – we see suicides as a result of this scam,” Ms Rickard told The New Daily.
“It’s really the meanest, the nastiest, and the most horrific of all the scams in my view.”
Alex*, a Perth man in his 70s, experienced this kind of deception first hand, when a woman claiming to be from Cambodia reached out to him through social media and the pair struck up a friendship.
It was by no means the first time Alex had been contacted by young women through the site, but a sharp and savvy internet user, Alex typically caught them out first, often toying with the would-be scammers by asking them tough questions and making it clear he was aware of their intentions.
However, Alex has also made real friends with strangers through social media – friends he’s since met on his travels through Asia – and with the usual red flags missing in this case, he chose to take a chance, even stepping in to help the anonymous woman secure a travel visa to visit Australia. In the process, he gave her access to his ID details.
Shortly after, an Optus account was opened in his name, and a $7000 debt racked up on two phones and a smart watch, all of which was sent to his home while his new ‘friend’ requested they be forwarded on to her address in Cambodia.
Alex confronted the woman about the bill, and it was promptly paid, but the packages didn’t stop – shoes, speakers and other small items all started arriving in the post with similar instructions – and eventually the woman asked Alex to receive a $15,000 refund from a business that she claimed owed her the money, but would only pay it into an Australian account.
Fortunately, Alex saw the warning signs and refused to share his bank details and, suspecting that he was being groomed as a mule for money launderers, he contacted the police.
Spotting a scam
In past years, dating scammers have targeted people through online dating sites. But the ACCC’s Ms Rickard said these con artists are increasingly moving to other forums, such as Facebook, to snare their prey.
Regardless of the medium though, the scams are usually run the same way and come with multiple warning signs that daters can watch for to stay safe.
If someone seems like a scammer, a great way to check is by running their profile picture through a reverse image search, like Google Images or Tineye. Scammers routinely use other people’s pictures and recycle the same images too, so checking the origin of a photo can quickly weed out cons.
Similarly, scammers like to work from scripts and some of the more “flowery” language used in messages will sometimes appear after a quick online search, Ms Rickard said.
Scammers will also make excuses not to take part in a video call, or will have excuses for why their camera is broken and they can only conduct a voice call.
But, according to Ms Rickard, the No.1 giveaway that someone is a scammer is if they ask for money despite never having met face to face.
“If they ask you for money and you haven’t met them, it’s going to be a scam sadly,” she said.
*Name changed for privacy.