How to Spot On­line Love Scams

What seemed a gen­uine ro­mance ul­ti­mately left one woman dev­as­tated

Reader's Digest Asia Pacific - - Front Page - BY HE­LEN SIGNY

IT TOOK JAN MAR­SHALL a cou­ple of days to re­alise that she’d been duped by a man she loved but had never met.

When the aw­ful re­al­ity hit her, what left her reel­ing wasn’t just that she’d lost ev­ery dol­lar she had to a fraud­ster. It wasn’t even that her whole imag­ined fu­ture of love and com­pan­ion­ship had been ripped away. It was the ques­tion to which she had no an­swer: How could I have let this hap­pen to me?

Like just over 3000 Aus­tralian men and women last year alone, Jan had fallen vic­tim to a highly so­phis­ti­cated ro­mance scam. She lost her en­tire life sav­ings and all her superannuation. And, as she re­alised in the days and weeks that fol­lowed, there was vir­tu­ally noth­ing she could do about it.

“I found that there is a great deal of vic­tim blam­ing that goes on in our so­ci­ety. Peo­ple won­der how you could be so stupid. But you are the vic­tim of professional fraud­sters,” she says.

A suc­cess­ful 59-year-old IT con­sul­tant, Jan had re­cently moved back from Bris­bane to her na­tive Mel­bourne for work and to be closer to her fam­ily. She knew that Vic­to­ria was a won­der­ful place to visit and she wanted some­one like-minded

to ex­plore with. “I have spent a large part of my life alone,” she points out. “I wasn’t nec­es­sar­ily feel­ing lonely or un­happy – it wasn’t lone­li­ness that made me sus­cep­ti­ble.”

Like all of us, Jan had heard sto­ries of peo­ple form­ing last­ing re­la­tion­ships on­line, so she de­cided to give it a go. She set up her pro­file on the dat­ing site Plenty of Fish and within a cou­ple of days was con­tacted by a hand­some, grey-haired English en­gi­neer named Ea­mon.

He wasn’t ideal – for a start, he was liv­ing in the US, trav­elled for work and had a 15-year-old daugh­ter be­ing cared for by a nanny in Eng­land. Hardly the local friend she’d been look­ing for. But none of the other men she’d con­tacted were re­spond­ing, and she fig­ured it would be good prac­tice to an­swer Ea­mon’s emails.

Over the next few days, he started to send Jan long lists of ques­tions. “What’s your favourite food? What mu­sic do you like? Have you ever been to Eng­land?” It seemed in­nocu­ous enough. Jan re­sponded se­ri­ously and at length. “How else do you get to know some­body?” she thought.

They seemed to hit it off straight away. It was un­canny how he shared the same in­ter­ests and knew just the right ques­tions to ask. Very quickly, he urged her to con­tinue their com­mu­ni­ca­tion out­side the dat­ing site and re­moved his pro­file. “I’m only go­ing to be talk­ing to you now,” he told her. With hind­sight, Jan re­alised this is a com­mon tac­tic to re­duce the scam­mer’s vis­i­bil­ity.

Ea­mon told her he was re­turn­ing to Eng­land for work and asked her to call him. She paid for the call (and for the hun­dreds that fol­lowed). His ac­cent had a pleas­ing lilt. He was du­al­her­itage, he told her, with an Ir­ish fa­ther and a Rus­sian mother. They started to talk more fre­quently. Some­times when Jan asked him a ques­tion he’d make an ex­cuse – he had to take his daugh­ter some­where or go to a meet­ing. By the time they spoke again later, he’d re­searched the right an­swer.

Over time, they at­tempted to com­mu­ni­cate face-to-face. But there was al­ways some­thing wrong with Ea­mon’s tech­nol­ogy and, as hard as he tried to get it work­ing, he could see her, but apart from an ini­tial twosec­ond video, Jan never saw a pic­ture of her scam­mer.

Still, the con­ver­sa­tion was elec­tric. He was in­tel­li­gent and well-ed­u­cated, wealthy and with a good job. He told Jan that all he wanted was to set­tle down and be with one per­son – and he’d travel any­where in the world for the right one. Over the weeks, he ex­pressed his in­ter­est in Jan more and more force­fully. “I only want to talk to you, I think you are spe­cial, I just want to be there when you come home from work and share my life with you.”

With in­cred­i­ble skill, Ea­mon built the dream. Jan started to be swept along in the ro­man­tic jour­ney. He seemed to be ev­ery­thing she could

have ever wanted in a part­ner, and at no point did it seem too good to be true. De­spite her com­mon sense, Jan was in a de­li­cious love bub­ble, buoyed by the con­stant af­fir­ma­tions that she was spe­cial and wanted. “I had never heard that stuff be­fore, from any­one,” she says.

Their intense con­ver­sa­tions would start in the early evening and they would talk through the night, by phone, Skype or in­stant mes­sag­ing. In the morn­ing, Jan would leave for work and con­tinue tex­ting on the train. She was think­ing about Ea­mon all the time, re-read­ing his mes­sages and print­ing out his pho­tos to put up around her house.

Her friends and mother were wor­ried, but she chose to ig­nore them. She thought long and hard about whether it could be a scam, but it seemed to be too real, too in­ti­mate. “I con­sciously made the de­ci­sion to go with my love,” she says.

Five weeks af­ter they’d met, Ea­mon sent her a text mes­sage that made her heart leap. “If you were a woman who was loved by a man and he asked you to marry him, what would you say?”

“I’d say yes,” she texted back. That night, on their still one-sided Skype con­ver­sa­tion, they con­sum­mated their re­la­tion­ship with cy­ber­sex. He’d got her. A few days later, Ea­mon an­nounced he was go­ing to Dubai for a six-to eight-week con­tract to do main­te­nance on an oil pipe­line. He had his daugh­ter with him but she had lost his lap­top on the way. Once he’d ar­rived, he mes­saged Jan to say he hadn’t re­alised he’d need to pay tax in Dubai for the con­tract. He had more than enough money in his bank ac­count in Eng­land, but he couldn’t ac­cess it.

Jan was usu­ally sen­si­ble and care­ful with money. She’d built up a sub­stan­tial nest egg and had al­ways taken good care of her fi­nan­cial af­fairs. So it was com­pletely out of char­ac­ter when she trans­ferred $33,000 to pay Ea­mon’s tax. Her bank said noth­ing and she was com­forted when she checked out the re­ceiv­ing bank – it was le­git­i­mate – and when he sent her a copy of his English bank state­ment to prove he could pay her back with in­ter­est.

Not long after­wards, he mes­saged her again to tell her he had mis­cal­cu­lated the amount of ma­te­ri­als he needed for the pipe­line. Then, a few days later, again to say he was be­ing threat­ened be­cause he hadn’t paid the sec­ond half of the tax.

The sense of ur­gency built grad­u­ally over the next few weeks. Ea­mon

De­spite her com­mon sense, Jan was in a de­li­cious love bub­ble, buoyed by the con­stant af­fir­ma­tions that she was spe­cial

used ev­ery ruse to ma­nip­u­late Jan’s emo­tions so she would pay more. He was hurt, threat­ened, scared. His ‘daugh­ter’ called Jan to say there were men in the apart­ment abus­ing her fa­ther and she was wor­ried. At other times he’d sob in grat­i­tude that she was help­ing him.

Jan sent more and more money, two large pay­ments through her bank, but the ma­jor­ity through West­ern Union at the post of­fice or MoneyGram. One time, af­ter she’d trans­ferred $40,000 into his bank ac­count, he called to say he’d been robbed on the way to pay it. She was so wor­ried for his safety that she paid the same amount again.

She still doesn’t re­ally have an ex­pla­na­tion for why she paid, but at the time it seemed nor­mal. “This was my life part­ner. My money was his money,” she says.

Ea­mon con­sis­tently told her he just needed to get back to Eng­land and he would re­pay her. Then he said he’d had a car crash in which his driver was killed. He wanted to get out of the con­tract but he couldn’t contact the right peo­ple be­cause they were all at a funeral. If Jan told him she didn’t have any more money, he’d get so up­set that she’d fi­nally give in.

By the time Ea­mon was fi­nally out of hospi­tal and heading to the air­port to fly back to Eng­land, Jan had sent him more than $260,000.

She’d emp­tied her sav­ings ac­count and self-man­aged superannuation fund – all the money she’d set up for her fu­ture. She’d even given him her last pay.

His last text was sent as he was board­ing the plane. “I love you so much, thanks for ev­ery­thing.” She waited a cou­ple of days for him to ar­rive home and send her the money back. He never con­tacted her again.

For the first few weeks, Jan was in shock. She couldn’t even af­ford food un­til her next pay ar­rived. The first thing she did was to ac­cept she’d been scammed and face it head on. She called her mother and the girl­friends who had warned her. Yet de­spite ev­ery­thing, she was still in love. If he had turned up on her doorstep, she would have wel­comed him with open arms.

She went to the po­lice, who took the de­tails and sent them to West­ern Union. They be­lieved the money had ended up in Nige­ria, but there was no way of get­ting it back. Jan’s bank also con­tacted her af­ter it had re­ceived a query from the bank in Dubai, which was sus­pi­cious that money laun­der­ing could be in­volved. She told them she was the vic­tim of a ro­mance scam and they tried sev­eral times to re­trieve her money, but to no avail.

Jan also in­formed the Aus­tralian Tax­a­tion Of­fice that she had emp­tied

her su­per fund. They closed it down – and taxed her at 46.7 per cent, cost­ing her a fur­ther $76,000. Even with le­gal help to mount an ob­jec­tion, she had no re­course. “They fined me for be­ing caught in a scam,” she says.

Jan still couldn’t un­der­stand how it could have hap­pened to her. She wrote down a metic­u­lous chronol­ogy, try­ing to work out at what point she’d been hooked. Be­fore the scam she’d al­ways acted ra­tio­nally, and straight after­wards she acted ra­tio­nally, too. But dur­ing those few weeks, she came to the con­clu­sion that she hadn’t been in con­trol. The scam­mer was con­trol­ling her.

Over the next year Jan bat­tled de­pres­sion. She’d lost all sense of her own value. But then, she de­cided to sur­vive.

She started to re­search ro­mance scams, and found the same story hap­pen­ing time and again. She re­alised it wasn’t per­sonal – it was a crime.

Jan also chose to pull her­self out of her state of shame, by speak­ing pub­licly about her ex­pe­ri­ences, launch­ing a blog and set­ting up a sup­port group. By own­ing up to her mis­take, it could no longer eat away at her.

“I am turn­ing what has been a dev­as­tat­ing time into a time to find an ex­cit­ing new ca­reer in writing and speak­ing,” she says. “I have moved from be­ing a vic­tim of an on­line dat­ing fraud to be­ing a sur­vivor.”

WHAT YOU CAN DO

There’s lit­tle re­course for vic­tims of ro­mance scams. Money sent to ro­mance scam­mers is al­most al­ways im­pos­si­ble to re­cover, and po­lice don’t have the abil­ity to in­ves­ti­gate most cases. Pete Steel, Ex­ec­u­tive Gen­eral Man­ager Dig­i­tal at the Com­mon­wealth Bank, says the bank of­fers cus­tomers a 100 per cent guar­an­tee against fraud where they are not at fault. For ex­am­ple, it will fully re­im­burse cus­tomers who no­tice a fraud­u­lent trans­ac­tion on their bank state­ment.

But if you will­ingly trans­fer money to some­one you don’t know, even if you are the vic­tim of a scam, there’s lit­tle the bank can do.

“We in­vest in state-of-the-art fraud pre­ven­tion and de­tec­tion tech­nol­ogy and have a ded­i­cated team who ac­tively mon­i­tor un­usual or sus­pi­cious ac­tiv­ity. An­other way we try to keep ahead of the curve is work­ing closely with law en­force­ment agen­cies and other banks to share in­for­ma­tion and un­der­stand po­ten­tial threats,” Steel says.

“How­ever, cus­tomers need to re­main vig­i­lant, pro­tect their bank­ing

Jan started to re­search ro­mance scams and found the same story hap­pen­ing time and again

de­tails and be smart about who they send money to.”

There’s very lit­tle le­gal re­course for vic­tims of ro­mance scams, ei­ther. Crimes can be re­ported to your local po­lice and to Scamwatch at www. scamwatch.gov.au/report-a-scam. The Aus­tralian Cy­ber­crime On­line Re­port­ing Net­work (ACORN) au­to­mat­i­cally refers suit­able re­ports to law en­force­ment agen­cies.

But whether a case is fol­lowed up de­pends on a num­ber of fac­tors, in­clud­ing the type of in­ci­dent, where the sus­pect is lo­cated, and whether the report con­tains suf­fi­cient in­for­ma­tion about the of­fence.

Ac­cord­ing to Dr Cross, sup­port­ing vic­tims to re­cover is vi­tal. “They may need med­i­cal as­sis­tance to im­prove their phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal well­be­ing, coun­selling to re­pair re­la­tion­ships with fam­ily, and fi­nan­cial coun­selling to as­sist with their fi­nan­cial losses,” she says.

“At present vic­tim sup­port schemes do not ap­ply to non-vi­o­lent vic­tims of crime, which means they are not ac­knowl­edged as vic­tims and not el­i­gi­ble to gain fi­nan­cial as­sis­tance for re­cov­ery. We need to [re­vise] vic­tim sup­port schemes to be based on no­tions of harm rather than an ar­bi­trary of­fence type.”

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