Lives taken and money stolen happen daily with online dating and romance scams.
For most of the population it seems inconceivable that someone would give away their life savings or superannuation fund to a person they have only met online.
Yet, people get caught in online dating and romance scams too many times in the name of love.
Since 2017 there has been a 36.5% increase in money lost through online dating and romance scams, reaching $28.6 million in 2019 as reported on Scamwatch.
Halfway through 2020 and Australians have already lost 50% of the total amount lost last year.
“And that number will grow to much, much more, especially with COVID-19 and social distancing,” Suli Malet-Warden, counsellor at IDCARE, a not-for-profit Australian charity that deals with all sorts of identity and cyber security concerns, said.
If those scams have largely decreased from 2017 to 2020 for the usage of fax, snail mail and landline phones, the same can’t be said with social networking, internet and email applications.
Documents are sent through emails nowadays instead of fax and most people use their smartphones instead of landlines, which would account for the increase in usage of dating apps or other web apps.
From Statista.com, 16.60 million Australians owned a smartphone in 2017 with a 7.5% increase in 2019 and a further 15.5% increase by 2022.
Nine in 10 Australian own a smartphone, giving them access to the world wide web and unwillingly allowing fraudsters to find them.
Non-dating social networks such as Facebook, Messenger and Instagram are the norm to communicate nowadays, leaving nothing of a private life, no matter how much people think they have high privacy settings on which leaves them highly targeted by scammers.
Words with Friends, which is an online word game similar to Scrabble, has resulted in $598,075 loss in 2019, probably due to the fact that from a simple word game the platform has evolved with profiles that can be linked to Facebook therefore showing a picture and private messaging allowed.
When Australians were forced to go into lockdown because of COVID-19, one main concern as expressed in a Triple J radio show The Hook Up was about not being able to date.
“Human beings are wired for connection,” Suli said.
“It’s easier to fall in love with a stranger online because they’re reading their non-verbal cue and there is less judgement.”
With so much of lives being revealing across social platforms in the form of likes, favourite and thumbs up or down, scammers can target their preys easily.
“Compassionate people need and want to protect and nourish, especially women so they’re easy target for scammers,” Suli said.
From 2017 to 2019, there was a 65% increase in loss among women while there was only a 3.5% increase among men.
According to Scamwatch from 2017 to 2020, the 45 to 64 age group has the highest lost while it is much less significant for people under 35.
This can be attributed to the fact that young people have less money than their (older?) counterpart who may own several houses and built a hefty portfolio?.
Older generations tend to have more assets and have used their superannuation fund to help their “new-found love”.
“It’s a bit like eating a whole tub of ice-cream,” Suli said, “you kind of know it’s wrong, but you still eat it anyway.”
Sadly, it is not just all about money.
Sydney grandmother Maria Exposto, 55, was tricked into smuggling drugs after falling for an online romance scam.
She was arrested at a Kuala Lumpur airport in 2014 after she was found carrying 1.1kg of crystal methamphetamine.
Exposto was in jail for five years and spent 18 months on death row before her appeal was accepted to become a free woman again.
For some it’s even more than a financial loss and can end in death – murder or by suicide.
In 2014, Jette Jacobs, a 67-year-old widow from Western Australia went to South Africa to meet a 28-year-old Nigerian man she had fallen in love with via online dating and was found dead in her rented apartment shortly after she arrived.
Despite all the warnings, existing tragedies portrayed all over the internet, and some of the fraudsters being caught, the total amount of loss due to online dating and romance keeps climbing with no signs of slowing down.