Little has changed! Dating and romance scam business model still intact! Slight reductions in figures indicate the ACCC is having some impact, however the tens of millions of dollars lost is incomprehensible, and does not tell the story of the impact of the dollars lost on victims. Continue reading Scammer business model still intact!
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.
Regardless, 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
When 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. I 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.
This 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.
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.
- 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.
- The 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
The 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.
- 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.
- They ask for honesty and make lots of promises (but will never return them).
As a friend of someone being targeted for a scam
- 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.
- Be respectful of what your friend is feeling, however try to keep them open the equal possibility that it is a scam.
- If 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.
- 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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 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.