They say a fool and his money are soon parted — but the idiom could just as easily apply to lonely hearts. Romance fraud is currently one of the hottest enterprises in the cybercrime industry, with thousands of lovelorn Aussies being hoodwinked out of their cash on a daily basis. We spoke to detective superintendent Brian Hay from the Queensland Fraud Sqaud and Sabour Bradley; the host of the new documentary series Head First which tackles romance fraud in its first episode (airing on ABC2 tonight). Here are their top tips on how to avoid the cyber "love" crime honey trap.
Keyboard picture from Shutterstock
Romance fraud is a burgeoning illegal business that involves online scammers seducing victims with fake identities in a bid to fleece them of cash. Once a relationship has been established, the victim will willingly hand over what's asked for, never suspecting they are being duped by a con operation. Perhaps their sweetheart needs money for a life-saving operation, or maybe they want to buy a plane ticket to finally meet in the flesh: whatever the reason, the requests for financial assistance will soon start rolling in.
"Love" scammers are mainly based in West African nations such as Ghana and Nigeria. There has also been significant activity from Malaysia in recent years, although much of this has been linked to Nigerians setting up operations there. Thanks to the immediacy of the internet, targeted victims are usually from more prosperous countries including Australia.
It's tempting to deride the targets of romance fraud for being desperate, gullible losers, but apparently it's a widespread problem that nets victims from all walks of life. Indeed, the first episode of Head First features a victim support group whose members include a young farmer, a middle-aged woman and an elderly gay man — when love is on the line, it seems almost anyone can be duped. Interestingly, male and female victims are about equally represented.
According to detective superintendent Brian Hay, approximately $10 million is funneled out of Australia each month via fraudulent means. The vast majority of this money — around 80 per cent — was stolen via romance fraud. Hay said that most of these losses are not reported to the police due to a sense of embarrassment from the victims.
"The profile of the people being scammed by romance fraud is tertiary educated professionals around 45 year old," Hay said. "People like this simply don't think it could happen to them, and when it does, when they realise it, they are often way too ashamed to come forward or go public, because of the stigma attached to being scammed by an online relationship."
Online dating has become an accepted practice in modern times: indeed, many find it preferable to traditional dating as it allows you to select candidates and break the ice without any awkward social engagements. This makes it an ideal hunting ground for cyber criminals looking for a quick score — and not in the usual dating sense.
"It can all happen very fast," says Sabour. "Through the constant barrage of questions and interactions they ascertain the financial viability of the victim and move accordingly. Remember they don't need a lot of money from the victim to survive in West Africa, so nearly anyone is a viable target."
Below are Brian and Sabour's top tips on how to avoid potential love scams along with the chief warning signs to look out for:
Did you meet this person on a dating site?
"Love scammers target people through chat rooms and online forums, of which dating sites are the most common. The reason is obvious - people are virtually advertising their vulnerability: they're looking for love, they have an emotional need to be filled. People also put too much information on their profile meaning the scammer can create the "person" they are looking for."
What do they do for a crust?
"The persona created by the love scammer will usually have a trusted occupation - like military or government or educational or banking."
Why is this hottie into me?
"The photos scammers send of themselves are incredibly attractive; a lot more so than the victim is used to. If you're reading this, I don't wanna say you're punching above your weight, but if you keep thinking "I'm out of my league here but she/he just doesn't seem to care" then maybe you're being scammed."
Is the relationship moving fast?
"Love scammers start to tell you they love you very early on in the relationship. They want a relationship straight away, they want to get engaged/married very quickly. In terms of 'love' language, they take everything to the next level a lot faster than normal."
Do they tick all your boxes from the get-go?
"Love scammers tend to reflect the circumstances or the needs of the victim. For example, they are a widow with a child."
How many emails do they send you daily?
"Scammers SHOWER their victims with attention - masses of it, constantly, at all times. If you start getting multiple emails daily soon after making an online connection, it's probably a bad sign."
Are they reluctant to talk on the phone?
"Love scammers will usually have some reason why they can't talk on the phone. They also don't want to do video calls on Skype. This is because they don't look anything like the pictures they've sent you. They might not even be the same gender."
Do they have a business opportunity for you?
"The most successful online scams involve romance that then develops into a business investment opportunity - this is where the police see the biggest losses. If you're romantically involved with someone you've never met and they present you with an investment opportunity, you should probably head for the hills!"
Have they met with a string of misfortunes?
"A recurring love scam involves the romantic partner going to West Africa and getting robbed or having a car accident — they then require money to get back home or urgent life saving medical treatment. In the case of the latter, the victim will often be contacted by an alleged "doctor", which adds to the authenticity. Alternatively, they may want money to buy a plane ticket to visit you... then they need money for the insurance... then they need money for the visa... Then they get stopped and need more money or get into a car accident on the way to the airport or they had the wrong visa."
Additional check points:
"People need to check the IP address of the person they're dealing with. They should also use Tineye or Google Image to check any photographs that the scammers have sent them - you will normally find that the photos have been copied from somewhere else on the internet.
"People should NEVER send money, people also need to be aware that the scammer will shower them with constant attention and people should always seek counsel and guidance from their true real-world friends."
In Episode 1 of Head First, Brian Hay and Sabour Bradley track down some love scammers based in Ghana and seek to beat them at their own game. The episode screens on ABC2 tonight (May 1) at 9:30pm. You can also catch it on ABC iview for the next two weeks.