Trust your gut instinct when it comes to falling in love online.
That’s the message from Griffith University criminologist Dr Jacqueline Drew who’s leading a campaign to warn people about the dangers of romance scams.
With the explosion of dating websites in the past decade, the cringe factor of finding love on the internet has long since passed and it’s become commonplace to meet partners online.
But with this new way of dating also comes the danger of being scammed and, according to Dr Drew (pictured below), a senior lecturer with the Griffith Criminology Institute who conducts research in collaboration with the Queensland Police Service, anyone can be tricked.
“We’re all vulnerable,’’ she warns. “None of us should feel safe from being tricked with a scam or a fraud.”
“We have highly educated people who fall victim to romance scams.
“Many of our romance victims who have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars say they had that feeling right at the beginning when they were first asked for money, that something wasn’t quite right. But because they want to trust that person they have spent time getting to know online they ignore that feeling. And it’s this feeling we want people to trust,’’ she says.
And it’s this high cost of romance fraud that has researchers worried.Australians lost $25 million in romance scams in 2016 alone, with $23 million in investment fraud.
Dr Drew says these figures are just the tip of the iceberg.
“We know it’s much more, but often people don’t report it because they’re embarrassed and they shouldn’t be, they deserve our empathy and support because they’re victims of crime. We don’t ridicule other victims of crime, we shouldn’t with these.
“Romance fraud is our biggest concern because of the significant amounts of money we are losing and the significant numbers that are going on here in Australia and elsewhere.”
So how does romance fraud work?
Dr Drew says victims tend to be female and in the 45-to-65 age group.
“They’ll put their profile up on a dating website and of course, this is perfect for offenders because they’re telling them everything they want in a relationship.
Then they will be a response to the profile which will start as a normal online dating relationship until the point the offender asks for money.
“Offenders are often a western businessman travelling to an African nation or someone in the armed forces, such as a US soldier, and we’ve seen many of these cases. Or it could be a real person whose identity the offender has stolen.
Usually the first request for money is when the offender wants to travel to Australia for a visit to progress the relationship but they need the victim to send money for the fare.
“So it’s usually to establish the relationship that they ask for the first request of money which of course makes the person excited that their new boyfriend or girlfriend is about to visit them.
“What we know is a red flag is the time sensitivity of the time transfer of the money.”
“Then we see a whole series of catastrophic events occur to the offender such as being caught up in customs or corrupt officials at the airport who require money, or they have an accident on the way to the airport.
Dr Drew says they don’t know a lot about the offenders because they’re offshore, so the people who target victims in Australia, and in the US and the UK typically usually in West African nations or they have cells throughout the world.
“What I say to victims is that offenders are clever. Scammers are well-trained in psychological techniques and tactics.
“They invest in their craft. They know what to say and when to say and they develop strategies they will know what will work.”
So what should Australians do to protect themselves from romance scams?
“The best protection is self-protection. Be aware of what information you’re putting out there on the internet and be vigilant. Trust your instinct and if there’s the slightest doubt, don’t do it.”