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Romance scams

Australians reported a record-breaking $37 million lost to Scamwatch in 2020 for dating and romance scams – and with many people too embarrassed to tell authorities that they have fallen victim, actual losses are thought to be much higher that that!

It is increasingly common for scammers to use dating apps to find people seeking connection to lure them into an investment scam, which leaves them with significant financial losses and emotional distress.

This technique, called romance baiting, involves scammers meeting people on dating apps before moving the conversation to an encrypted chat site. Often after weeks of building a relationship, the scammer begins asking about the victim’s finances and encourages them to take advantage of an investment opportunity.

Scammers often encourage a victim to initially transfer a small amount of money to show how easy the investment is. Victims are then told to top up their accounts to achieve increased profits, but when they run out of money to transfer, all communication normally stops with the scammer.

While traditional dating and romance scams tend to target older Australians, almost half of all losses to romance baiting scams come from people under the age of 35.

Dating & romance

Scammers target people looking for romantic partners, often via dating websites, apps or social media by pretending to be a potential partner. They take advantage of emotional triggers to get a victim to provide money, gifts or share personal details.

How the scam works

While dating and romance scams often take place through online dating websites, scammers can also use social media or email to contact a victim. They can even telephone and speak to their potential victim as a first introduction to try and establish that emotional connection. These scams are also known as ‘catfishing’.

Scammers create fake online profiles and may use a fictional name, or falsely use the identity of a real, trusted people such as military personnel, aid workers or professionals working abroad.

Dating and romance scammers typically express strong emotions for their target in a technique called ‘love bombing’. They contact the victim several times a day professing their feelings to encourage the victim to develop feelings in return. This makes someone more likely to participate in an investment scam.

Once the relationship develops they ask a victim (either subtly or directly) for money, gifts or banking/credit card details. They may also ask for the victim to send pictures or videos, sometimes of an intimate nature.

Often the scammer will pretend that money is needed for a personal emergency. For example, they may claim to have a severely ill family member who needs an expensive operation or have had an unfortunate run of bad luck such as a failed business or robbery.  The scammer may say they want to travel to visit the victim but can’t afford it without having money to cover flights or other travel expenses.

Sometimes the scammer will send you valuable items such as laptop computers and mobile phones, and ask you to resend them somewhere. They will invent some reason why they need you to send the goods but this is just a way for them to cover up their criminal activity.  Alternatively they may ask you to buy the goods yourself and send them somewhere. You might even be asked to accept money into your bank account and then transfer it to someone else.

Sometimes the scammer will tell you about a large amount of money or gold they need to transfer out of their country, and offer you a share of it. They will tell you they need your money to cover administrative fees or taxes.

In 2020, Scamwatch received over 400 reports of romance baiting scams in particular – totalling over $15.2 million in losses and the majority involving cryptocurrency investment scams.

In addition to the potential to experience of emotional and financial injury, dating and romance scammers can also pose a risk to personal safety because they are often part of international criminal networks. Scammers can attempt to lure a victim to travel overseas and into a dangerous situation that can have tragic consequences.

Warning signs

  • Someone you meet online profess strong feelings for you after a few short contacts and ask to chat with you privately via encrypted chat or email.
  • Their online profile is not consistent with what they tell you about themselves.
  • After gaining trust they tell you an elaborate story and ask for money, gifts or your bank account/credit card details.
  • Messages are often poorly written, vague and quickly change from initial introductions to statements of love.
  • If you don’t send money straight away, messages and calls become desperate, persistent or direct.
  • If you do send money, they ask for more.
  • They always have an excuse for not keeping promises about travelling to meet and needing more money.

Protect yourself

Never send money to someone you haven’t met in person and don’t know.

Always consider that an approach may be a scam, particularly if there are warning signs.

Do an image search of your admirer online to see if they really are who they say they are.

Be alert for spelling and grammar mistakes, inconsistencies in what they say and others warning signs – such as their camera never working if you want to video chat online.

Be cautious when sharing personal pictures or videos with prospective partners. Scammers can blackmail using compromising material.

If you agree to meet a prospective partner in person, tell family and friends where you are going.

Never send money or give credit card details, online account details, or copies of important personal documents to anyone you don’t know or trust.

Avoid any arrangement with a stranger that asks for up-front payment via money order, wire transfer, international funds transfer, pre-loaded card or electronic currency, like Bitcoin.

Do not agree to transfer money for someone else: money laundering is a criminal offence.

Be wary about what you share about yourself on social network sites. Scammers use that information and pictures to create a fake identity or to target you with a scam.