Online dating and romance scams continue to lure in Australians with figures this week showing people have lost more than $23 million this year alone, with average individual losses at $21,000 – three times higher than other types of fraud.
Love scam picture from Shutterstock
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) set up the Scam Disruption Project in August to help target those it believes have been caught in such scams. Over three months it sent 1,500 letters to potential victims in New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory.
The figures released this week show that 50 people have been scammed, losing a total $1.7 million – that's an average of $34,000 per victim. Almost three quarters of the scams were dating and romance related, which saw it evolve into the number one category of fraud victimisation.
Romance scams continue to pose a problem – despite the efforts of the police and ACCC – so why is it that people continue to fall for them?
From my experience interviewing victims, it starts out innocently. An online message from a dating website or social media, a "like", a "wink" or a "kiss". After that initial connection, it moves to an off-site messenger service. Long conversations, day and night, over email, messenger or the telephone.
Over days, weeks, months or even years a relationship develops. But then it happens – the request for money. It may be a few hundred dollars or it may be several thousand. The request can be for a medical emergency, a travel request or any number of things.
By that stage, the level of trust and rapport is so strong and the level of perceived intimacy so great, that the victim complies and sends money. For so many, that first transfer is the beginning of a heartbreaking and costly journey.
But as the ACCC points out:
Whatever the story, once the victim pays a scammer the money is gone and the chance of ever recovering the loss is almost nil.
To prevent such losses the ACCC started its Scam Disruption Project to seek out potential victims and attempt to stop them sending money overseas.
This follows similar approaches undertaken in other jurisdictions, notably Project Sunbird in Western Australia, which exemplifies a proactive way to combat this type of fraud.
As an outsider, it is difficult to understand how a person becomes a victim. It seems somewhat outrageous that a person could send large amounts of money to a person they have not met in person.
It's too easy to blame the victim, hold them responsible for their loss and reinforce the shame and guilt they are already feeling. But this ignores the role of the offenders in this situation and the ways in which they employ high level manipulation, exploitation and social engineering tactics to ensure compliance from their victims.
We're more open online
Everyone has a weakness or vulnerability. Being human implies that we are all fallible. For those seeking relationships online, their weakness is the desire to find love.
Studies which explore characteristics of online relationships have found increased self-disclosures online compared to face-to-face interactions.
Combined with research which asserts online communication as the enabler of "hyperpersonal relationships" (overly intense relationships), this literature helps frame how individuals are manipulated into losing money to someone they have not physically met.
Over the years, I've interviewed around 150 victims and they do not fit a prescribed stereotype. The idea that victims are greedy and stupid is simply a myth used to perpetuate the idea that "we" cannot be victims, that "we" are different to those who become victims and that "we" are too smart and impenetrable to any type of fraud.
Instead, I've found that romance fraud affects men and women, young and old (though older people are more attractive targets), from a variety of educational, occupational and socio-economic backgrounds.
I've also found that people cope differently from this experience: some are angry, some are depressed, some talk of suicide, while others spend every waking hour trying to figure out how they were scammed and try to prevent it happening to others.
There are still many victims who are not able to come to terms with what is happening and despite intervention from family, friends and even law enforcement, they refuse to acknowledge the deception.
CASE STUDY: A woman in her 50s was approached by a man in America. She developed a relationship with him, which included her talking and emailing his "daughter". She lost $A30,000 before she realised it was a fraud and stopped sending money.
But she became a victim in a secondary scam, from bank officials in another country claiming her "husband" had opened an account in her name. She lost another $A30,000 trying to access these funds.
She reconnected with the original man, believing that they both may have been scammed by this banking official and that she might be able to continue her relationship with him. In the process, she has lost all her savings, her house, her job and it put immense strain on her relationships with family and friends.
This case study is typical and from the outside it is easy to see that the person is being scammed, yet they continue to put themselves at the mercy of the offenders.
But this just demonstrates the level of manipulation that exists in these relationships as well as the strength and intensity of the bond that offenders are able to establish to continually convince the victim that their "love" is real.
Media are littered with other stories of men and women who have suffered at the hands of online offenders, and are fully aware of what happened. These people have not only had to deal with the financial impact of the fraud but also grieve the loss of the relationship which formed the central part of the ruse.
Then there are those who have shouldered the burden in silence, fearful of the reaction they would get from family, friends and law enforcement agencies.
For the brave victims who do come forward and disclose, in many instances there situation is dismissed by their family and friends, they are further stigmatised in these circles and unable to get any acknowledgement about what happened from law enforcement and other agencies. This only further traumatises the victim and reinforces their existing notions of self-blame.
Avoiding the heartache
In terms of prevention, it is difficult to promote a message which encompasses the complexity of online romance fraud. But it has to be more than clichéd responses of "if it seems too good to be true, it probably is" or caveats such as "don't send money to people you don't know".
These are irrelevant in this situation. Rather, prevention needs to come in the form of acknowledgement, of recognising the fact that no one is immune to fraud when using online dating to find relationships.
Instead, it should be a simplistic message that focuses on one key element: the protection of money across all circumstances.
Despite the reality of romance fraud, it shouldn't act as a catalyst to abandon the search for love online. Instead, it should serve as a warning. No matter where the online relationship is at, if a request comes through for money, the answer should always be a firm "no".
Cassandra Cross is Lecturer in Criminology at Queensland University of Technology.