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THEY look normal. Friendly. Certainly nothing to be afraid of.
They say all the right things and tick all the right boxes for women who go to dating websites looking for love.
The messages they send are warm, complimentary and, most tellingly, overly inquisitive very early on. And if you look closely enough they are tailored to fit the profiles of the women they had selected as victims.
Welcome to the world of romance scams where before you know it ordinary, smart, confident Australians are reduced to a shell of their former selves after being sucked into a fake world where money, not love, is the ultimate goal.
This week an Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) report revealed Australians had been conned out of $25.2 million dollars in this way with the average person losing $21,200 each.
The reality though is the actual losses will be far higher as many cases go unreported. A number of victims who shared their stories with news.com.au lost obscene amounts of money.
For Michelle* it began with Rafael and the following line:
“People Around me tell me [I’m} Handsome. I want to believe that the art of love is largely an act of persistence so here I am in search of a true friendship and hope it turns to be
True love. It is sad that most people are scared of falling in love but Deep down, we remain human, very human and have all the desires to love and be loved by one person ...”
Two years have passed since then and Michelle is almost $100,000 poorer because of it. And she’s harbouring a big secret from those she loves the most.
“That’s how much I lost. I borrowed from kids, my parents, I broke into my super fund and got money that way.”
She can’t bring herself to tell her children, who repeatedly warned her not to send any money to Rafael.
“I can’t bring myself to tell my family ... That’s what’s eating away at me.”
Rafael needed a loan to pay off debt, buy plane tickets to come and see her (a very common request from these fraudsters) and he had some extraordinarily bad luck.
He told Michelle he had been robbed, another excuse he was he’d lost his employees wages — the flow of money only stopped when she ran out of cash.
Michelle was there for him each time, giving him money because she wanted to help the man she was falling in love with.
The 50-year-old thought Rafael would fly to Australia from South Africa and be with her. She was so mesmerised by him she couldn’t wait to get home and read his messages.
“It just took over. I lived and breathed talking to him and he was all over me like a rash.”
She told herself she was doing the right thing because “that way he would be on the plane and here sooner”.
Looking back she can’t believe the words that once had her so spellbound were so obviously false. She thinks he had generic messages prepared, “because no one can write things like that so quickly”.
Going forward she hopes to be strong enough to tell her family what happened.
Judy Ireland tells news.com.au she doesn’t want to dwell on the past because, “it’s very hurtful, painful”.
She’s attempted suicide twice but battled back from those dark days to help counsel other romance fraud victims.
They want to know where you live, and who with, your job, what holidays you’re planning, what you like to buy — anything that will give them an idea of how much money you have.
Her story is similar to that of Michelle’s because romance fraudsters have a simple MO.
“They court you for the first few days and then hit you with the questions. Then they say they’re falling in love with you.”
Edward told Ms Ireland what she wanted to hear.
He was going to come back to Australia for her, she wouldn’t be alone anymore. He just needed her to pay for his ticket.
He told her he was in the African country of Ghana — ironically a country where a number of other actual fraudsters have been traced to.
Ms Ireland can see the pattern now but when she was in the midst of the “relationship” with Edward it wasn’t so clear.
In the space of just five months she lost $48,000 to a man she never met.
“I lost my life savings ...”
The amounts Edward asked for varied and there was always some urgent need for funds — his luggage had been stolen, for example — that Ms Ireland, 65, would help him with.
For five years he promised: “I’ll be seeing you soon”.
Ms Ireland believed him. “He was going to marry me when he came back.”
By the time she realised the trap she’d fallen into it was too late.
“I woke up one morning and thought, ‘Oh, I think I’ve been conned’.”
She tried to get hold of him but couldn’t get in touch with him for three weeks. When they finally did speak he continued the charade, insisting he would leave Ghana, where he was working, and come to live with her.
Five years have passed since then and Ms Ireland knows she will never again see the money again.
The impact was not just financial.
The relationship with her children was strained because, “they couldn’t understand how I could be such a fool”, and she twice attempted suicide.
Looking back now, she can hardly believe it.
It has left her doubting everyone she meets and she hates that.
“My trust in my fellow man is no longer. You’re left feeling even more vulnerable and gullible.”
There are now so many romance scam victims, a support group — with over 200 people — has been started where victims can share their experiences without being judged.
“It makes me feel sad. Look, I’m not going to say stupid. I go to the meetings and say to them ‘we weren’t stupid, we were vulnerable’.”
Her message to women now is simple. Don’t ever give money.
“I say to them, “these people are professionals, it’s their job. It’s a professional racquet”.
Jill Ambrose is a member of the group and has learnt through bitter experience what it’s like to lose everything.
She lost more than $300,000 over four years when she was conned by a man she believed was a health commissioner in Nigeria. An interior designer, he asked her for help in renovating hospitals. Or so she thought.
“The scammers are so professional they know how to place you when capturing your interest and must hang onto everything you tell them to improve their chances to extract every cent from you.”
No one could convince her she was being scammed, not even the police. “That is one thing that all the victims agree on; that we would not listen to any advice, we were so convinced that our experience was real and we were different.”
At its most extreme romance scams can be deadly. Earlier this year Jette Jacobs was murdered in South Africa by a man she had been in an online relationship with for four years.
The 67-year-old grandmother is thought to have sent tens of thousands of dollars to Jesse Orowo Omokoh, despite Western Australian police warning her it was a scam.
He was later arrested in Nigeria and questioned over her death and defrauding her of $90,000.
Detective Superintendent Brian Hay, head of Queensland Police’s Fraud Squad, has seen first hand the ugly scars romance scams were leaving on Australia.
“The reality is it’s the self-esteem, the depression, the suicide, the torment and the shame from being ridiculed. That’s without even taking into account the financial loss — but [the other factors] are arguably the biggest losses.’’
Australia was losing millions to scammers every month.
“It’s astounding. But the actual cost to the community is far greater.”
Detective Superintendent Hay said some victims were so brainwashed by their online “lovers” they were still giving money to the scammers even when police arrived.
Incredibly, some people continued to give money even after they realised they were being lied to.
“Then we go in and shatter their dreams. It causes them heartache stopping it.”
He told news.com.au of an older woman who died of natural causes last month after losing her life savings to a con artist she met online.
She told him she was devastated her love interest had turned out to be a fraudster. Her family were not supportive but just “happy they had been proved right”.
The issue has torn apart families and ruined relationships and friendships forever.
“It’s sad isn’t it? We all need love, [but] we’re seeing more and more of it ...”
Detective Superintendent Hay doesn’t hold back when describing them.
“They are scumbag mongrels who are preying on our community members.”
Part of the problem is people are getting being busier and having less time for each other, especially seniors, he said.
Scammers lurking on the dating sites are ready to strike at anyone vulnerable — in many instances they passed themselves off as someone who had been recently widowed or divorced to have something in common with people who genuinely were.
ACCC deputy chairwoman Delia Rickard said relationship scams caused the most significant emotional and economic harm to victims.
Ms Rickard said people needed to be particularly vigilant when they meet someone online.
“Scammers take advantage of the internet to establish relationships behind a smoke screen, where they remain anonymous while connecting with people around the globe with the click of a button.”
*not her real name