Romance scams are on the rise, and to mark Fraud Awareness Week two victims have come together to share their stories, finding the tactics used against them were shockingly similar.
Netsafe figures show that $8.7 million was lost by New Zealanders in romance scams between January and September this year, compared to $1.4 million for the whole of 2017. Last year the Commission for Financial Capability (CFFC) created the role of Fraud Education Manager as part of its remit to help Kiwis improve their financial capability, and hired former bank fraud investigator Bronwyn Groot.
In a video interview with Groot, Mary* and Lisa* tell how they have not only lost money, but had their hearts broken in the past few months. They were approached by men through Tinder and the business networking site LinkedIn. In each case the fraudsters employed the common tactic of quickly moving their victims off the site on which they met and onto a private platform such as Skype, What’sApp or Google Hangout.
“He started by sending me long emails,” recalls Mary. “He was very open and had a compelling life story. They know how to talk to women - I found him charming.”
Both men claimed they worked overseas in international jobs such as engineering that saw them travel the world. Mary, a teacher, and Lisa, a midwife, say they each checked out the men’s stories, and found websites and other evidence that seemed to back them up, but which they now realise were fake.
Despite both men having excuses for not showing themselves to the women on camera, Mary and Lisa found they were soon emotionally engaged, and willing to believe promises by the men that they wanted to visit the women in New Zealand. The first requests for money came when the men were “en route” and sounded plausible, or had such convoluted stories behind them involving customs and hospitals that the women couldn’t pick them apart. Mary and Lisa each say they had no reason to doubt the men.
“We do trust people – that’s a thing we Kiwis have instilled in us,” says Lisa.
But her suspicions were raised when the man she was in touch with started talking about million dollar investments, and then became angry when she resisted complying with his requests. She eventually told her lawyer what was going on, who made her face the reality of the fraud. By then she was deeply in debt and had to refinance her property.
Mary started suspecting something was wrong when the man she was communicating with kept finding new reasons not to talk to her on camera, and promises of repayment of her loans were broken. She also suspected different people were emailing her, pretending to be the same person.
“I confronted them and said ‘I think you’re all scammers’. I never heard another word after that.”
The emotional and psychological effects of the fraud are ongoing. Mary suffered panic attacks and could barely sleep for three months. Lisa was so traumatised she’s had to have mental health days off work. And each is going through the grief of losing a person they’d become emotionally connected to, and a future they had planned.
“This kind of fraud is incredibly manipulating, and very psychologically damaging,” says Mary.
Her advice is to never send anyone money.
“I don’t ask people for money. I would say the real indication of a scam is the request for money.”
Bronwyn Groot says the women’s stories illustrate the manipulative and sophisticated tactics that romance fraudsters use to ensnare their victims. In the CFFC’s book The Little Black Book of Scams, Groot advises how to avoid being caught:
- Never send money or give financial details on a dating site
- Be cautious about who you communicate with online
- Don’t respond to requests or hints for money
- Never send money to anyone you don’t know or haven’t met in person
- Avoid giving out personal details that could be used to impersonate you
- If you think you are being scammed, stop all contact and avoid sending further payments. Protect your mobile phones
“We need to shift the blame from the victims to the offenders, because their methods are sophisticated enough to catch anyone,” says Groot. “And we need to call this crime what it is – fraud. The more we feel able to talk openly about it, the more we can help prevent others from becoming victims.”
* Names changed to protect identity