Romance scams: It's not love, actually
Romance scams cost Australians $142 million in 2021, and the number is rising. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission's Scamwatch received 3699 reports of dating rip offs in 2022, up from 3400 in 2021. It is one of several agencies that monitor scams.
Despite this, more than 2.6 million Australians use online dating and a study by Monash University estimates that by 2040 it will be our go-to way of meeting a life partner.
Online dating has plenty of success stories. A survey by the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) found 12% of respondents had been in a committed relationship with someone they met online, a figure that climbs to 50% of millennials and LGBTQ+ respondents.
Nonetheless, connecting with a stranger carries risks. Among younger online daters, unwanted attention from potential suitors can be a more pressing concern than losing money to scammers.
Blessica, 29, who prefers to use only her first name, says: "One of the downsides [of online dating] is when you match with someone and they hunt you down on social media, and start messaging you on Instagram instead of Tinder. It's crossing a boundary that feels uncomfortable. I have quite a unique name, so it's easy to find me. I don't find it too threatening - more annoying, and some people can be very persistent.
"You can always set your [social media] profile to private, but having your Instagram linked can help people get a better feel for who you are, so it's a toss up."
This type of unwanted attention can extend to online sexual harassment and cyberstalking. It's known as technology-facilitated sexual violence (TFSV), and the AIC says it's been experienced by as many as three in four online daters.
It's not love, actually
All age groups encounter romance scams (see chart). The over-55s, and in particular over-65s, tend to take the biggest financial hit. It's a trend seen internationally and, according to Crimestoppers, scammers tend to target older people who are more likely to have the wealth they are chasing.
Men are just as likely as women to experience romantic fraud, though the losses are far bigger among women. Scamwatch data shows women lost more than $27 million to romance scams in 2022, almost double the $13.6 million lost by men.
While it's easy to blame dating apps like Tinder or Bumble for romance fraud, social media provides rich pickings for cybercrooks. Last year, Australians lost almost $16 million to romance frauds that originated on social media, double the $8 million lost to scams through dating apps.
Crimestoppers says scammers target people on social media by taking advantage of emotional triggers such as the mention of divorce or loss of a lifelong partner.
It's a cue not to reveal too much about your personal life on the likes of Instagram and Facebook, and to maintain high privacy settings.
Playing the long game
A few red flags can indicate your romance could end in a rip off. "Love bombing" - when a person rapidly declares their love for you - is one to be aware of.
However, Chris Goldsmid, commander of Cybercrime Operations with the Australian Federal Police, says criminals will invest a significant amount of time - sometimes years - building what seems to be a legitimate relationship with their victim.
"They will express their love for the victim and in some cases promise marriage but will often have a complicated story about why they cannot meet in person."
Once they've established trust, cybercrooks start to test the waters with small requests for money. A whole library of heart-tugging excuses may be wheeled out, but if the victim pays up, the requests keep coming - and the sums grow bigger as the scammer gains confidence.
Rom-cons recruit mules
Romance scams aren't just about losing money. A national anti-money laundering crackdown in December 2022 identified 15 romance scam victims who were being used as money mules. This is where the person you've met online asks you to transfer money on their behalf.
"The criminal will ask the victim to set up a new bank account, or will transfer money into their existing account, with a request to forward the funds offshore to people claimed to be [the scammer's] friends, family or businesses," says Goldsmid.
Transferring money on behalf of someone else may seem relatively harmless. However, the money is usually the proceeds of crime such as drug sales, and it can carry jail terms of up to 25 years.
Goldsmid says that romance scams are a common method for criminals to recruit money mules, and it's not always obvious that money laundering is involved.
"People should question why someone needs to use their bank account to transfer money offshore, rather than doing it themselves," he says.
More to lose than your money
Losing money to someone you believed was a romantic partner is bad enough. But the damage bill can go higher.
In a survey of people who use online dating apps, the AIC found one in eight people has been approached with requests that sexually exploit their children. It says men are almost twice as likely to receive these types of requests as women.
Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus says the survey's findings are deeply alarming. "We need to see developers adopt safety-by-design principles, so platforms are preventing harm in the first place."
Dating platforms are taking steps to improve user safety. In January 2023, Match Group, which owns several popular dating apps including Tinder, Hinge and Plenty of Fish, rolled out a public awareness campaign in Australia. App users received tips on dodgy behaviours to watch out for, plus help to identify potential scams.
It follows the introduction of new app features including selfie verification and pop-up messages with safety tips if certain language is detected in conversations between users.
Buddy Loomis, senior director of law enforcement operations and investigations at Match Group, is a former detective and special agent.
"I know firsthand how scammers lure unsuspecting individuals into giving personal information and ultimately money," she says.
She believes leveraging technology and resources helps users make safer online connections. That said, it is still very much a user-beware environment.
Match Group offers several key tips for safer online dating:
• Never send money to someone you've never met in person. Not for any reason. Ever.
• Stay on the app as long as possible. Scammers will attempt to get you onto another platform quickly. Take it as a warning sign if your match wants to move platforms, and still doesn't want to meet in person.
• Use the tools in your dating app. Verify your profile with photo verification and look out for the verification check on your matches to help confirm they are the person in their profile pictures.
Research by US anthropologist Helen Fisher has found that falling in love floods our brains with the feelgood hormone dopamine. That same overload of dopamine can also lead to poor decision-making.
So, if you're unsure about requests being made by someone you've met online, talk to a friend or family member.
Without any emotional connection (or dopamine hit), they may spot the warning signs that you're in the crosshairs of a scammer.
When online lovers meet in real life
Inviting into your life a person who you've only met online can mean not really seeing their true personality until you're heavily invested in the relationship.
Two years ago, divorcee Roxanne*, 45, met Bill* through a dating app. The relationship moved swiftly, and he suggested they share a place together with a view to buying a home if all went well.
Roxanne's retired parents made their investment property available for the couple rent-free while they saved a deposit.
After moving in together, Bill discouraged Roxanne from seeing friends and she became increasingly isolated.
The couple started looking at apartments listed for sale on the NSW Central Coast. Bill made offers on quite a few but always claimed he was knocked back.
Finally, Roxanne contacted an agent herself to see if Bill's latest offer on a unit had been accepted. She was told Bill hadn't made any offer at all. Phone calls to several other property agents confirmed they'd never heard from Bill.
When Roxanne confronted Bill, he said nothing - just packed his bags and left.
"It was a wake-up call," says Roxanne. "He had 18 months of living rent-free at my parents' expense, and I'd lost touch with friends who would have alerted me to Bill's lies and controlling behaviour."
*Not their real names
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