Australians lost millions to online romance scammers last year, with heartless con artists increasingly targeting non-dating websites and apps including Facebook, Instagram and Words with Friends.
More than a third (37.5 per cent) of romance scams reported resulted in a financial loss, with victims losing an average of $19,000.
Dating and romance scam losses topped $28.6 million in 2019, accounting for 20 per cent of losses across all scams reported to Scamwatch.
However, reported losses are “just the tip of the iceberg”, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) warned, with scammers increasingly setting their sights on unsuspecting users of non-dating related platforms.
Social media apps and sites accounted for a staggering 33 per cent of all dating scam losses for a total of $9.1 million.
Victims lost the most money on Facebook, which accounted for 7.3 per cent of all social media losses.
Surprisingly, Words with Friends, a popular online game similar to Scrabble, was also a target, with victims reporting 38 scams on the app and losing $598,075.
Baby boomers and generation X were most susceptible to romance scams, with 1470 people aged 45 to 64 reporting losses of more than $18 million (63 per cent of all losses reported).
Women were hit with the majority (75.3 per cent) of financial losses, totalling $21.5 million, compared to the $7 million reported by men.
“We’ve seen an increase in reports from people who did not originally seek an online relationship but have been caught up in a dating and romance scam,” ACCC deputy chair Delia Rickard said.
No longer are dating websites the only contact method for dating and romance scams, with an increasing number of reports coming from these emerging websites and apps.”
Ms Rickard said romance scams are “particularly devastating” due not only to the financial losses they can incur, but because there is “an emotional toll for the victim, which can have lasting psychological impacts on people”.
How online romance scams work
Scammers seek to make their target fall in love with the persona they have created and quickly profess their love for the victim, the ACCC said.
They will normally weave complicated stories about why they can’t meet in person and ask the victim to send money or provide financial aid so they can travel to meet them.
Although less common, there have also been instances of scammers meeting their victim in person and requesting money.
If the person sends money, the scammer will ask for more, and if they don’t, the scammer may become aggressive or use guilt to manipulate their victim.
How to avoid getting conned
There are a number of precautions people can take to protect themselves themselves and reduce the risk of falling victim to an online dating scam.
These include not giving personal details or sharing intimate photos with strangers online.
In 2019, the majority of losses occurred via bank transfer, totalling 33.8 per cent or almost $9.7 million.
This was followed by ‘other payment’ method such as iTunes, Steam and Google Play gift cards, which totalled $8.8 million or 30.8 per cent of all losses.
“If you’re interacting with someone online, it’s important to be alert and consider the possibility that the approach may be a scam,” Ms Rickard said.
Don’t give out personal information, including your financial details, to anybody you haven’t met in person, no matter who they say they are, and don’t share intimate photos or use webcams in an intimate setting.”
People who think they may have provided their banking details to a scammer should contact their bank or financial institution as soon as possible.
In addition to the loss of money, shame and heartbreak, dating scam victims have also been used as pawns in criminal plots.
In 2018, Sydney grandmother Maria Exposto was sentenced to death by a Malaysian court for drug trafficking, after being duped into carrying drugs by her online boyfriend.
After spending 18 months on death row, the 57-year-old had her conviction overturned and was released in November.
“Don’t agree to carry packages internationally or agree to transfer money for someone else as you may be inadvertently committing a crime,” Ms Rickard warned.
“If you become concerned by the conversation, such as if the person is asking for ‘favours’ or money, cease communication.”