The power of speaking out

With this week being International Fraud Awareness Week there has been the release of a report on levels of fraud in the past year from the ACCC.  Romance scams account for most money lost in scams.  I have been called on for interviews for news articles and TV by a number of outlets, because of being an Ambassador for ACORN, and so declaring my willingness to speak out.

Speaking Up. Speaking Out.
Speaking Up. Speaking Out.

 

I know I have an interesting romance scam story – I was caught in a romance scam, gave away over $260,000 expecting it to be returned, and lost it all.  I noticed, however, as I was interviewed for TV, that I was happy and cheerful to be doing so.  Even the questions about “What did you feel at the time?” I answered with a smile on my face.  I have done this a few times now.

I know they come to me because there are not too many people willing to speak out about their experience.  It is hard to publicly acknowledge that I fell in love, and I was fooled by their lies.  People may think I am stupid, and I was.  It is a vulnerable place to be.

In speaking out, though, I own what I was responsible for.

  • I own that I wanted love, and to be loved.  That’s normal.
  • I own that I chose to follow my heart, in giving the money to the person I thought was my partner for life, rather than be ‘sensible’ or ‘reasonable’.
  • I own that I did not take heed of the warnings I was given, and stepped over the inconsistencies, thinking, no, feeling that I was ‘in love’ and that it could not be a scam with this level of intimacy.
  • I own that I made a mistake, and that this has made my finances precarious to say the least, now and into the future.

Many who suffer hardship turn around and fight for it to not happen to others.  The Morcombes, and Rosie Batty are the most high profile ones that come to mind, but there are many.  In speaking out, particularly with a message about prevention or recovery from scams, I am doing the same.  I am saying I will no longer be a victim of this singular event, I will make it have a powerful and ongoing meaning in my life, and through this, the lives of others.

Speaking up outIn speaking out I have regained my self-respect.  I am not hiding my mistake behind shame and embarrassment.  I proclaim that I am human, and that I can learn and grow from my mistake, and hopefully love again.

I have discovered a love of writing. As well as this blog I have written a book, though I am still looking for a publisher.

About scammers, I have learned

  • They are skilled professionals, manipulating us, twisting our love to defraud us of our money
  • It is not personal.  By this I mean that they do not care about us personally.  They are scamming many people at the same time, using the same photos and scripts/emails under different names, in teams.  They actively lie to us, never intending to follow through on their promises.

I say this here because it is important to know about scammers.  Without this it is too easy to say it is the victim’s fault, they were just stupid or naive.  No, the victim was deliberately targeted and defrauded. And they should not be stigmatised with shame for falling victim to this. It can happen to anyone.

So what is the prevention message, for International Fraud Awareness Week?

  • Be wary, and know how to check what’s true, i.e. do a Google photo search.
  • Never give money, or your bank details. Don’t think it is OK if you send money via banks: These are not safe institutions in the hands of scammers. Certainly do not send money via Western Union.  The money can be collected from anywhere in the world despite where you think you send it to. No-one else is going to protect your money.  I made over 20 separate transactions and was never asked by anyone if it could be a scam.
  • Rapid declarations of love are downright suspicious, especially when you have not met the person face-to-face, and no-matter  how beguiling they sound.  Scammers are very good at building up a sense of intimacy which makes you think it could not be a scam, but this is false.  Promises to come and meet and marry you are false, and will never be fulfilled.  Only communicate or date with someone who is local to your own area, that you can meet face-to-face.
  • Educate yourself about the various red flags which might indicate a scam, and if in doubt, treat it as if it is a scam.  Here’s a great example from the Scam Disruption Project.
  • Speak out and educate others about what you are finding….

If you do actively protect yourself in this way it is possible to meet the love of your life online. Many people do.

This is how I came to be a Romance Scam Survivor.  By powerfully speaking out.  I will continue to do so.

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

Scam Methods, Trends and “sextortion”

Wayne May and Monica Whitty know a great deal and the latest about scams.  Wayne is the CEO and Founder of the UK based site ScamSurvivors.com.  Monica Whitty researches scams from the University of Leicester.  They both know about scams and can talk about what  the trends are, what methods are currently being used by scammers.

Monica Whitty being interviewed in 2012
Monica Whitty being interviewed, 2012

I had known about Monica before.  She has a great research report which I have provided a link to on the Research page of this site.  I recently discovered this worthwhile video of her being interviewed about her research. In particular I was struck by her comments about how people are groomed, which is done by keeping people sleep deprived, and separating them from their friends.  That certainly happened with me.  Its only 6:04 minutes, so watch the interview here.

For a recent update, I found this audio podcast from The Guardian Tech Weekly. She starts off talking about some recent hi tech movies, but then gives a good update.  Her interview starts at 31:45 minutes into the hour long program.

I came across these videos  of both Monica and Wayne because they are attending iDate as speakers.  iDate is the Conference for the dating and internet dating industry, and there are several conferences held in different places around the world for different markets.  Monica and Wayne are scheduled to speak at the London iDate Conference in October 2015. I’d love to be there and hear what they say is the latest this year.

Interview with Wayne May, 2014
Interview with Wayne May, 2014

Wayne May I had not heard of before, but was very pleased to see an interview from him from the same conference held in 2014.  This one lasts 43:06 minutes, but there are gems all the way through.  He talks about “sextortion” as the latest trend, where people, mostly men, are inveigled to strip off and perform acts on videocam, this is saved, and then they are blackmailed by threats to show the videos to family and colleagues. Scamsurvivors.com covers all sorts of scams, not just romance or dating scams. It has a whole forum for sextortion. It also has other videos, and photo galleries as well as provides 24/7 support for victims or suspected victims of all types of scams.

More than this though, if you have any questions about scam, how they work, who they impact, how you identify one, who looks after sites like these, all of them are asked and answered by Wayne May in this video.  Its well worth the watch.

In fact, take some time, watch, listen to them all.  I will post these links onto the research page when I next post.

Let me know what’s your favourite video or resource about romance scams?

Why it is important to report romance scams?

In my last blog I mentioned ACORN, the Australian Cybercrime Online Reporting Network. In this one I wanted share why it is so important to report romance or dating scams to organisations such as this.

ACORN
Report Romance Scams to ACORN

As I said last time, ACORN is a national policing initiative that allows cybercrime victims to easily and instantly report cases of criminal activity online, as well as providing information on how to avoid falling victim to cyber criminals.

When I reported my scam experience, late in 2012, I reported to the local police station. I took all of my documents in, which they copied, they took my statement, and that was that. I was so embarrassed I can remember being very detached, giving a local constable the detail, but not showing any emotion. There was no sense they could do anything, and online research I did later indicated that it was unlikely that I would ever get anything back. I felt powerless to do anything about what had happened.  Friends suggested I contact other policing agencies but I was so ashamed of what had happened that I could not.

The one thing I know the local police did do was report the names used by my scammers to Western Union, so that they could be stopped if used again. Only the police could do that. I also heard that Western Union reported that the money I sent via them was collected in Nigeria. That was a surprise, as I had sent the money to Dubai.

We don’t always hear about it but the fact that ACORN is set up shows that the police are doing something, and police jurisdictions working together helps get results. For example, I know of one woman in Victoria was told by Police from Western Australia that she was being scammed, which they were able to do because they were watching the account to which she was sending money. They stopped her losing even more money. The ability to watch bank accounts, Western Union and other money transfer agencies that are being used by scammers, and share this information across jurisdictions is critical to early detection and prevention of romance scams.

Scams disruption project findings

Another example of police jurisdictions working together is the Scams disruption project started in August last year. This saw 1500 letters being sent to people across Australia identified as sending money overseas, warning them that it may be a potential scam. This project has a great page on how to identify romance scams. 60% of the transactions stopped. For the first time this clearly identified social media as a source of the initial contact, though dating sites still were the source of 74% of the relationship formed as a basis of the scam.  I wish this had happened two years before, perhaps stopped my scam happening, or at least getting so bad….

It was not easy to go into that police station and front up to the huge error I had made and the hundreds of thousands of dollars I had lost. Being able to report online will now make this easier, and hopefully mean that the event and the financial loss can be reported sooner, again enabling police to be engaged in prompt investigation and identification of perpetrators.

Orowo Jesse Omokoh, arrested for allegedly killing Jette Jacobs

Effectiveness, as gauged by stopping and arresting perpetrators, cannot be achieved by local justice agencies however, as mostly the perpetrators are overseas. The building of sufficient evidence and proof, however, to take to overseas police jurisdictions is critical. Unfortunately history says it takes a death to raise the profile enough for action to be taken, as in the case of the Western Australian woman Jette Jacobs who was killed in South Africa. They did arrest her killer, and in the process, the Australian Federal Police built good relationships with the Nigerian police.

I hear that scammers are now moving to Ghana, as there are no reciprocal policing arrangements or relationships there. I also hear that the proportion of scams targeting Australians is greater than elsewhere in the world. I wonder why, but could guess, based on my own experience, that it is because we have more difficulty determining what’s true or real in places that are more distant from us.

For myself, when my scammer said he had to pay taxes in Dubai that he had not allowed for, and that people came and threatened violence and to throw him in jail if he did not pay, I had no way of assessing if this was a likely and real scenario for Dubai. Unfortunately I assumed it was true, and gave money to help. Another scenario I have heard is of a scammer claiming to have an Italian background, and the woman who was targeted knowing that the accent did not hold true because she was familiar with Italy. She realised that it was a scam, and avoided losing money because of this.

But I am getting a little off track. Over $28 million was reported lost to romance scams in Australia last year, according to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), who run the ScamWatch website. At least that is what we know about, and we only know about them because they were reported. I suspect that this is just the tip of the iceberg. We won’t really know the true amounts until more are reported. If we knew the true costs to our economy, this would put pressure on police jurisdictions, parliamentarians, and dating sites to do more.

The fourth reason to report the scam to ACORN and similar organisations is a psychological one. If we do not name it for ourselves, say what has happened, tell the truth, and instead retreat into shame and silence, we remain forever a victim of the scam. By telling the truth about what has happened, calling the scam the professional and criminal fraud that it is, we can step out from behind being a victim, take small steps to regain our self respect, and become a survivor. It is the first step to owning up to the fact that we have made a mistake, learning from it, and moving forward. I hope you take (or have taken) action and become a survivor. Its not too late to go ahead and report if you haven’t already. It will still add to the picture and understanding of what is happening here in Australia even if it was some time ago.

Just to be clear, The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s SCAMwatch website also takes reports of scams. If you have fallen victim to a scam, you should report the matter to the ACORN. Where a crime may not have occurred, but the matter involves a scam, this can be reported to SCAMwatch to help keep Australians informed about the latest range of scams in circulation. Information on online scams reported to the ACORN will be shared with the ACCC.

For overseas readers, to report Romance Scams:

In America, make a report to IC3 The Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) is a partnership between the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the National White Collar Crime Center (NW3C).

In the UK, National Fraud Authority (NFA): It seeks to coordinate existing counter fraud work across public, private and voluntary sectors.

In Canada, Canadian Anti Fraud Centre (CAFC): A call centre for victims of fraud across Canada.

ACORN Ambassador LogoBecause of my willingness to speak out on these issues I have been selected as an Ambassador for ACORN. I receive no financial compensation for this.

How do they research you, so they can better hook you in…?

In the early days with my scammer, we exchanged emails with a lot of questions in them about what we liked and did not like.  In the context at that time the questions seem innocent enough, but embedded in them are key questions that the scammer can later use.  Eg. when he went back to England he asked if I knew anyone in England.  My negative response to this let him know that he did not need to worry about me knowing too much about where he lived.

In general conversations/exchanges about interests, passions, previous relationships, etc there will be items that you share about what you like and don’t like. One item I put on my profile was an interest in property investing.  That is a give-away that you have an interest in money making ventures.

By revealing themselves first, and saying that they are looking for someone who is honest and open, they lay the ground for you being the same. E.g

"Relationships: Give 100%, if this can not be given, then you are not that true friend, lover or husband/wife. Be true to yourself, and your love ones. Honesty, communication, and understanding along with patience will make the difference. This is just my opinion mind you. Sharing, is more than finance, material assets, more importantly, it is the sharing of yourself, time, and love. Giving always more to the other, and they will give back. It is a forever revolving door of giving..."

As well as giving away information that can be used, what is not commented on by the scammer can sometimes be telling.  My scammer did not comment on my political inclinations, my spiritual preferences, or seem to take more than a cursory interest in Australia or Victoria.  this felt a bit odd at the time, as they are areas that can be disastrous and deal breakers in relationships. These were items that I wanted to know about him, but did not get the chance to follow up. In hind-site, the absence of a response shows how shallow the communication actually was, but at the time things were moving at such a pace that it was difficult to pick up on this.

Instead the talk turns to what feels special… and this is the hook!

"I will say my heart tells me you are one very special woman. Whatever will be between you and I, please know you have a friend for life regardless of the miles between us. I feel very blessed that you responded to my email, that I will cherish forever. In our walks of life, it is not often you come across another who still has morals, family values, respect and continues to follow their dreams.

 Its so easy to not take notice of the contradictions or incongruities.  We must get better at making sure we do follow up on these.

If you think you are being scammed, get in touch with ACORN .  Remember its not just a scam, its a deliberate and professional fraud that is being perpetrated.

  • ACORN: The Australian Cybercrime Online Reporting Network.  This is an national policing initiative that allows cybercrime victims to easily and instantly report cases of criminal activity online, as well as providing information on how to avoid falling victim to cyber criminals.