Latest Targeting Scams 2017 report from ACCC

The latest report out from the ACCC called Targeting Scams 2017  came out on Monday 15 May with the 2016 figures.  In the area of romance scams the figures ($25.4 million reported lost) have not changed much, up slightly from 2015, but still under the 2014 level.  The report indicates some moves in the right direction, but much more effort in many directions is still needed.

Unfortunately, the figures reported cannot be regarded as a true level. It is generally acknowledged reporting is only at about 10% – 12% of actual cases. I was interviewed by Catherine Gregory of ABC News for The World Today program about the latest report and media release. Listen to this here.  (PS: alsohere’s my comments from last year’s report.) Continue reading Latest Targeting Scams 2017 report from ACCC

Right of Reply…

I felt moved to provide a ‘Right of Reply’ comment addressing the negative responses to a recent guest contributor blog posted on Starts at Sixty.  Its re-posted here.

100815_senior_woman_computerI recently wrote a blog about my scam experience which was posted on the Starts at Sixty website, which I have recently joined.  As with previous publications by me or others, there were many comments questioning “how could she be so stupid?”, “hasn’t she seen the warnings?”, “why doesn’t she join a club?”,  etc.  There were also positive and supportive comments, but I felt moved to provide a ‘Right of Reply’ comment addressing the negative ones. The following is copied from my comment (Comment No 199) on Starts at sixty.  I don’t know if it will be read by those who commented on the blog, but thought it was worth reposting here. Continue reading Right of Reply…

Devastating financial consequences

The direct and most tangible consequence of being caught in a scam is loss of money.  Some people don’t realise they have been scammed until large amounts are gone, never to be returned.  For some, its smaller amounts.  Whether its small or large is not a measure of its impact.  I have seen people loose relatively small amounts, but given that they have small incomes and large outgoings, this has had a huge impact on them.

lost everything 1Regardless, the response to being under the spell of a scammer when they ‘take the brain is that we will go beyond reason to give money. Not only do we loan our carefully sequestered savings, we can also take on more debt, sell our hard earned assets, and steal, beg and borrow money from our families or other places. We will loan whatever we can get our hands on to the scammer.  We won’t know till later that this money will not come back. As we are defrauded, we condemn ourselves and our families to a different and poorer future.

It is beyond devastating when we realise that not only are we are not going to get the money back from the scammer, as promised, but that there is nothing anyone else can do to get it back either. That money is gone into the ether (a.k.a. the scammer’s pockets). In western society we expect to be able to make redress when things go wrong.  There are normally laws which say this is wrong, and the person can be apprehended, charged, found guilty and there may be possible restitution or support as victims of crime.  In the international and digital circumstances where most scams operate today, this is not possible.  Local or national law enforcement, wherever we are, do not have any jurisdiction in other countries.

I remember when it first happened to me, many friends and family said insistently, there must be someone who can do something, the police, the national police, a parliamentarian…. Whilst the law enforcement agencies are building relationships internationally in areas where scammers operate from, and this has had some effect on scammers being caught in those countries, this makes minimal overall impact on the amounts being defrauded by scammers. New scammers will quickly step into the spaces left.

But I wanted to talk more on the personal level about the financial consequences, and will go through this in phases, primarily based on my own experience.

Phase 1: Immediate survival

Private-loans-and-student-death-300x199When we finally realised we have been scammed, we may be, as I was, unable to survive the immediate period financially without additional help.  I had given away pay I had just received and had no way to pay bills and buy food for the following few weeks. I had to borrow from a friend to get through the ensuing weeks.  Not having been able to do this would have left me destitute and greatly damaged my future credit rating. Thank you friend!

Luckily I had a job, but those who are out of the workforce who have given all of their reserves and sold all of their assets are in more dire straits, having to rely on sometimes unsympathetic friend and family for help.  They may need help of every form, food, accommodation, bills. They need this help at the same time as dealing with the shock of the emotion loss of a loved one (the scammer) and the shock and shame of realising that money is not going to come back. Also this is a time of dealing with police, making reports to law enforcement agencies, trying to understand scams, and changing email and bank details.  It all takes time and effort and often has to be done outside of work hours. This phase, I suggest covers about a month.

Phase 2: Reduce outgoings

In the ensuing months, we will need to cancel any discretionary expenditure we may have had, when we had lifestyles and assets.  This may be magazine or web site subscriptions, gym subscriptions, find credit cards with 0% interest periods, get lower levels of health insurance, lower cost car insurance, etc.. In situations where we may have lost credit ratings, or be losing significant assets such as houses, it can involve substantial paring back.

In those first months I had to juggle which bills I would pay, knowing that as I had a well-paying job, I would be able to rectify any un-payed bill in the following month.  Creative cash flow accounting I call it.

Luckily I had a job, a place to live which I could continue to afford, and the semblance of my life on the outside continued as normal.  rationalisationI was able to rationalise my financial loss as equivalent to someone loosing money in and investment scheme gone bad, and there had been a lot of those during the global financial crisis.

Eventually I did have to move to lower cost rental accommodation. For many, they may not have work or suitable accommodation, and I cannot imagine what life is like for them.  I spoke to one lady who was sleeping in a chair at a relative’s place, having lost everything. For many who are older, there will be no opportunity to work again, to re-establish an asset base, and it can mean that already they have been reduced in a short time from able to manage financially to joining the ranks of the poorest in our society.  They may need to rely on family (sympathetic or not) or charities for support.

Its is important to get financial counselling appropriate to your own situation at this point. Financial laws are different in different countries regarding processes such as bankruptcy.

Phase 3: Managing longer term impacts

This will be an individual matter depending on each person’s circumstances.  For me, though initially I had a good job and was able to survive week to week, I had, when under the scammer’s spell, taken money from my superannuation/retirement fund that I was not allowed to do.  It took me 2 years of legal negotiation with the Australian Tax Office to find that I would be taxed at the highest rate on this money, leaving me with a tax bill of over AU$76,000 in addition to all that I had lost. It was a hard lesson that organisations such as these do not have any compassion for a person’s circumstances, even when there is, within the law, supposed ‘discretion’.

At about this point, I was also retrenched from my job.  Whilst I did receive a redundancy payment, over time I found I was not able to find another suitable job.  I put this down to my age of being 61 years old.  As a consequence, I found myself in extreme hardship, not being able to cover my outgoings with a meagre unemployment support, which in Australia we call Newstart.

TaxLimitationOnBusinessLossesThis meant I could have been out on the street, loosing my rental accommodation, if not for being able to get some hardship money from my superannuation/retirement fund. I have joined the ranks of the poor and possibly destitute.  I am sure this is similar to many that have fallen victim to the professional fraudsters that we know as scammers.

In summary, the loss of money from being defrauded by scammers may bring on periods of extreme adjustments in lifestyle. This may occur at the point of realisation, or later, but is likely to be significant, commensurate with the amounts of money lost. Full impacts may not be known initially, but may be revealed years later.  Whenever it is revealed, it is likely to be in a negative direction.

My thought and prayers go out to all who find themselves in this situation.

Taking the brain…

I saw the term “taking the brain” in an article where an ex-scammer talked about the stages they go through in a scam.  It is the end goal of “love bombing”, the intensive grooming that scammers go through, where “the victim’s defences are broken down by exhaustion, social isolation and an overwhelming amount of attention“.

In the long article in AARP The Magazine , Enitan [false name used in the article], the ex-scammer says

“The goal is to get the victim to transfer allegiance to the scammer. “You want them thinking, ‘My dreams are your dreams, my goals are your goals, and my financial interests are your financial interests,’ ” he says. “You can’t ask for money until you have achieved this.”

I’ve had a number of contacts recently from family members of people who they believe are being scammed, and have given away huge amounts of money.  They wonder why they cannot get through to their loved one, and reached out to me for help.  I also saw a show on Dr. Phil where he interviews a woman who has given away US$300,000, and was still declaring her love and refusing to admit she had been scammed.

Those who have realised  they have been scammed continually get the question, “How could you give you money to someone you have never met?” It is nearly impossible to explain to people who have not experienced it. Marriage proposal This phrase, “taking the brain” is the best explanation I have seen yet.  It is no wonder, that with this intent plus tried and true techniques being used by scammers, that those caught in the scam have agreed to marry their fictitious partner, feeling like they have found their one true love.  This is the confirmation to the scammer that they have control, and can now ask for money.  I certainly felt, after I realised that I had been scammed, that I was not in control of myself at that time.  It is not detectable from the inside the scam though.

On a SBS TV program showing a BBC Documentary 2015 – Is Your Brain Male or Female  this week I saw that oxytocin, the honeymoon hormone which increases the level of trust when in love, only impacts women.  This was a surprise to me, because the numbers of men scammed is greater than women, though women report it more, according to the AARP article where they quote Monica Whitty’s 2008 book, Truth, Lies and Trust on the Internet. The article again quotes Whitty:

Computer-mediated relationships, she says, can be “hyperpersonal — more strong and intimate than Scammerphysical relationships.” Because the parties are spared the distractions of face-to-face interaction, they can control how they present themselves, creating idealized avatars that command more trust and closeness than their true selves. “What happens is, you can see the written text and read it over and over again, and that makes it stronger,” she says.

It has always been the level of intimacy developed in a scam that I think is not well understood or believed by those who have not experienced a scam.  The level of intimacy may have been made even more intense by cybersex, which can be used as a form of ‘consummation’ of the virtual marriage, and cement the achievement of the goal of ‘taking the brain’.

It is in the context of the intimacy developed during a scam, the ‘taking the brain’ that I come back to the issue of loved ones who are being scammed, and what family members can do about it. The victim when confronted may refuse to believe it is a scam and may be continuing to send money.  There is no easy answer as to what to do, especially as unacknowledged feelings of shame and denial in the face of relative’s insistence that it is a scam may push the victim to take a stance of “its not a scam, its true love and you would not understand“, words given to them by the scammer, even more strongly.  Again from the AARP article:

Shame, fear of ridicule and the victim’s own denial enforce this contract of silence.  “Once people are invested in these , it’s extremely difficult to convince them they are not dealing with a real person,” says Steven Baker, director of the FTC’s Midwest Region [USA] and a leading expert on fraud. “People want to believe so bad.”

This family interaction is hard for everyone involved, and can lead to break-up between family members.  It is quite different from the scenario in my post I think my friend is being scammed, where friends were discussed. Family relationships may be much more emotionally loaded.  There are also more serious financial implication, as assets are sold, inheritances are given away, loans are taken out and the victim is left with less than nothing. The bewildered family may be left with the ongoing financial burden or at least the need to support the now destitute scam victim.

I am trying to think if there is anything more that could be done in these situations apart from what I suggested in my previous post. I think in these situations it is more important to contact the authorities, and see if you can get any involvement from them.  Hopefully they would be tracking activity of scammers. I’m hypothesising that an interaction with an independent third party of authority may help.

Please add your own comments below if you have  ideas about or success with any other tactics when confronted with a family member who is actively being scammed, so we can all learn from  this experience. Contact me directly and I will post on your behalf if you require anonymity.

Finally, the article quotes our own Brian Hay, head of the fraud unit of the Queensland Police Service in Brisbane about the fraudsters:

Think romance fraud on an industrial scale. “The strongest drug in the world is love,” Hay says. “These bastards know that. And they’re brilliant at it.”

Reference:  
AARP THE MAGAZINE
‘Are You Real?’ — Inside an Online Dating Scam
A con man steels one woman’s heart – and $30,000.  Here’s how it happened. 
by Doug Shadel and David Dudley, AARP The Magazine, June/July 2015

 

 

 

I think my friend is being scammed…

I was contacted recently by a woman who was concerned for her friend and wanted some urgent advice.  “I have been listening to a friend’s beautiful love story unfolding, and then realised where it was heading”, she said.  She had seen the same pattern previously herself but had pulled out.  She had found my blog and got in touch. She acknowledged that “Although we are both intelligent women our need to be loved, and love, is stronger than reason, as you know”.  Yes, I know this only too well and at a high cost.

I had already been thinking about this question, and had even drafted a book outline on the topic.  I had been warned by friends, but disregarded the warnings, and have ‘kicked myself’ since.  So here are a few pointers to help, from the perspective of being a friend. (Remember that men can also be scammed by women, its not allways this way around.)

Understand how scams/scammers work

It important that you understand how scammers work so you can understand what is happening to your friend.

  1. The scammer has gathered information on your friend, and knows their weak points, and how much they want to be loved.  They will have no qualms about using this against your friend to their monetary advantage.
  2. friendsThe scammer will profess love quickly and deeply, making it seemed destined, special, magical, and its natural for anyone wanting love to respond to this. Though the text of emails, messages, chats are tried and tested pro-forma materials, they will seem genuine, personal and include promises of forever love. Your friend may at this stage be sharing with you the excitement of finally found their one true love.
  3. When ‘in love’, the hormone oxytocin is engaged, and this heightens trust, so the friend will be more trusting of the scammer than they might otherwise be. This means that they will be more likely to not focus on the inconsistencies in the experience, passing them by.
  4. They will be communicating at all hours, especially through the night, keeping your friend sleep deprived.  This makes it more difficult for your friend to make rational decisions when the scammer eventually  asks for money.  The scammer may also provide legitimate looking documents as evidence of their credibility or financial capacity to repay money.
  5. When confronted about being a scammer, the scammer will respond with righteous anger, feigning affront, and will encourage the friend to cut off from others, especially those with warnings.
    heartThe scammer will say that “what we have is special” and “they would not understand so don’t bother trying to explain – they will understand when they see us together – don’t talk to them”.  They will not ever intend to be together, but they will profess and promise otherwise.  The scammer will encourage your friend to cut off from you and other friends or family.  This may mean they will try and push you away or cut off from you.
  6. A high level of intimacy will be developed, including possible connections to others in the scammer’s imaginary family, including children.  This adds an element of normality and family intimacy which counters the sense that it might be a scam.
  7. They ask for honesty and make lots of promises (but will never return them).

As a friend of someone being targeted for a scam

  1. Keep close contact with your friend and resist being pushed away.  Encourage them to keep sharing with you.  You may want to just cry out “Stop it” but this might push them away from you and its important to keep the communication open.
  2. Be respectful of what your friend is feeling, however try to keep them open the equal possibility that it is a scam.
  3. chanakya-politician-the-earth-is-supported-by-the-power-of-truth-itIf you can, get actual emails and photos of the scammer.  Use these to do some checking using some of the sites such as romancescam.com, and scamsurvivors.com to check for previously stolen photos and search for stand-out segments of text.  As the same ones are used frequently, you may find them already reported, giving you information to take to your friend as evidence of a suspected scam.  Also do a Google image search on the photo: you are looking for the photo being connected to other names than the one used by the scammer.  Make sure you check on all results pages, and check for any google messages saying there is more to be seen, checking these results as well.  If you have the technical ability you can check the IP address in the email header as well to see if it is coming from the same location as the scammer.
  4. If you do find evidence that it may be a scam, present it as another possibility, not “the truth”, and encourage your friend to look further for themselves. Be careful not to make them wrong or unworthy of love.  When this happened to me I became rebellious, insisting that I deserved to be loved, and it pushed me further towards the scammer.
  5. Scams of the Heart link
    Scams of the Heart Blog link

    Here are some what not to say and why tips from by Soraya Grant in her Scams of the Heart blog.  This blog is excellent, and well worth a read in more detail.

  6. The person who contacted me made a great point about the need for a friend to match the time and energy level of the scammer, and identified the “need to apply just as much bombardment of information and support, even when it feels like intruding”.  She specifically judged when her friend could take in and be receptive to certain pieces of information. It takes a great friend to do this – I commend her on her efforts.
  7. If you are not sure what to do, reach out, to me or some of the other sites offering support resources.  There is help out there.  See my Support for Victims of Scams page.
  8. If your friend does part with money, and then realises they have been scammed, encourage them to report it.  See my blog on this.

Luckily in this instance we can report a good outcome.  Contact was broken off with the scammer, and life has moved on.

One last thing.. be wary about secondary scams.  Once they are in contact they may try again.  This includes, for example, scammers pretending to be police or Interpol, saying they have your money, or your scammer, including providing forged documents about this.  Don’t be tempted to go there, its another scam. More on this in my next blog.

Groomed to give our money away

Even after realising we have been scammed the one question that remains, not only for our friends and families, but also for ourselves is “How did this happen?”, “How could I, an intelligent, successful, down to earth, usually rational and responsible person, have done this?” I took several months to write out all that happened into a diary/timeline after realising I had been scammed. Even after doing this I still did not fully understand.  That came later…

The reality is that we are ‘groomed’, similar to how child abuse victims are groomed.

These tactics of grooming by child abusers include[1] :

  1. the ability to charm, to be likeable, to radiate sincerity and truthfulness
  2. establishing a trusting relationship, for example spending time with them and listening to them. They may treat the child as ‘special’; giving them presents and compliments.

    6 Stages of Grooming, courtesy of Camp How
    6 Stages of Grooming, courtesy of Camp How
  3. use gifts and trickery to manipulate and silence the child into keeping the sexual assault a secret. This treatment can isolate the child from siblings, friends or parents.
  4. gradually desensitising the child and violating their boundaries. For example, they may spend a lot of time with the child when he or she is bathing, dressing, or going to bed.
  5. convincing them that if they tell about the sexual abuse, something terrible will happen
  6. giving the child the impression that they have consented and that they are in a ‘relationship’ with the offender, or even that they initiated the relationship
  7. making the child to feel responsible for the abuse, and feel too ashamed or scared to tell anyone.

As I compiled this list for this blog I understood even more about the deliberation used in romance scams.  By changing the word child to person, and other minor changes to the sentence, all of the above happen in a romance scam (at least my scam), often including sexual abuse (through cybersex).  There is one more tactic though that is more relevant in scams of adults, an understanding of which adds to the picture.

In my list of being groomed for a romance scam the scammer:

  • builds a very strong and intimate relationship, so that it feels in your mind like they are part of the family. This may include initiating a proposal of marriage, and positioning for and ‘committing to’ a long term partnership or marriage.  I have highlighted ‘committing to’, as there is never any intention of following through on this in a scam.

Points 1, and 6 from the child grooming list above are relevant here.  As well, there is evidence that as we become more ‘in love’ the love hormone oxytocin will create more trust and develop more empathy.  We are very familiar with the ‘honeymoon period’ of a relationship and I suspect this is partly what is in operation during this period.  We know from outside that when someone is in the honeymoon period we are in an altered state, we are seeing things ‘through rose coloured glasses’ and that it will, over time, pass and things will become normal again.

Donna Andersen[2], in her blog on Lovefraud.com, from her understanding of the work done by Paul Zac comments:

When psychopaths target us for romantic relationships, they shower us with attention and affection. They spend a lot of time talking with us, and conversation builds trust. They say and do things to indicate that they trust us, and we should trust them. They tell stories about themselves designed to appeal to our empathy. They rush us into emotional, physical and sexual intimacy.
All of this causes the release of oxytocin in our brains, which is absolutely normal. Because of the oxytocin, we feel calm, trusting, empathetic and content. We especially feel trusting of the person who caused this reaction in us — the psychopath.

Though Donna Anderson is considering psychopaths in a much wider context of romance related fraud than I am with romance scammers, I think the term is applicable.  Scammers are unfeeling, and unconcerned with consequences, and when I replace psychopath with scammer, these statements are absolutely true.

  • Secondly, in romance scams, we are cut off from others.  Initially we are cut off from the safety of the dating site, by encouraging us to talk via email, and then talking via a chat or video messaging system such as Yahoo Messenger or Skype.  They will never let you see them in person however, because who they are is not the handsome person in the picture they have presented themselves to be in the dating profile.

    We are encouraged to cut off from friends and family who might warn us.
    We are encouraged to cut off from friends and family who might warn us.

If there is any sense of others warning us that this might be a scam, we are encourage to not listen to what others are saying, because “what we have is special, and no-one will ever understand” combined with ”I don’t want your emotions to be upset” and “when they eventually see us together it will be easier to explain”.  And because we are now trusting, and feeling we have a special intimacy, we cut off from our friends.

  • Thirdly, point 5 above for child grooming translates in a romance scam to “If you don’t give me money something terrible will happen”.  This might be innocuous initially, for example, I need something for my business supplies, but as the story is developed, there is ‘evidence’ of awful things happening such as threats of violence to the scammer; stories of being mugged/robbed; car accidents where people are killed; threats of prison and/or not being able to leave the country. These circumstances or reasons for needing money are given in a context of increasing levels of danger and urgency to allow the scammer to get to where their money is accessible and they can repay you the ‘loans’ that you have provided to get them out of trouble.  If you don’t pay, terrible things will happen. Which because you are trusting, you believe.
  • Fourthly, and this one may be adult specific, scammers keep you sleep deprived
Contact is often through the night
Contact is often through the night

and continually engaged so as to minimise the time you have to reflect and think rationally about what is happening. They talk to you late at night, early in the morning, and through the middle of the night.  Often requests for money happen in the middle of the night 1 am – 4 am when it is hard to resist them.

A friend used the term ‘spellbound’ when I was talking to her about my experience, and this term is very appropriate.  We have been spellbound through professional and deliberate manipulation of our emotions by professional fraudsters, grooming us to part with our money.  It was not personal for them, but the impact is very personal for us.

[1] Laurel House: North and North-West Tasmania Sexual Assault Support Services  http://laurelhouse.org.au/?page_id=36  Sexual Offender Tactics and Grooming

[2] Donna Anderson, LoveFraud.com Blog from May 2013 Oxytocin, trust and why we fall for psychopaths