The Australian Women's Weekly

Catch me if you can, my dear

- Su­san Chen­ery. Crime · BDSM · Feminism · Social Movements · Society · Facebook · Brisbane · Queensland · Malaysia · Australia · Queensland Police · Nice · Afghanistan · Third World · Google · Queensland University of Technology · University of Queensland · Melbourne · Victoria · United States of America · Dubai · RBS Securities · England · Cheshire

Thou­sands of lonely Aus­tralian women are duped each year by cruel on­line scam­mers who ex­ploit a nat­u­ral long­ing for love to pocket as much money as they can, with dev­as­tat­ing con­se­quences, writes

Catch me if you can, my dear.” These were the last chill­ing words Pa­tri­cia Meis­ter heard from the man who had wanted to marry her. The at­trac­tive, well-spo­ken busi­ness­man she met on Face­book last Novem­ber. She hadn’t been par­tic­u­larly look­ing for love, but had struck up a con­ver­sa­tion. “I prob­a­bly wasn’t in a great place in terms of past re­la­tion­ships,” she says.

Of Scot­tish and Ital­ian her­itage, he was based in Bris­bane, but over­seas on busi­ness. His wife had died eight years ago and he was look­ing for some­thing deep and last­ing. The more she talked to him, the more she found they had in com­mon. They had the same val­ues and wanted the same fu­ture. “He ticked all the boxes for me,” she says.

She found her­self fall­ing deliri­ously in love. She hadn’t ex­pected to find some­thing so won­der­ful in her early 60s. “It was a real high.” She couldn’t quite be­lieve this lovely man had come into her life. They talked on the phone night and day in their own lit­tle bub­ble of ex­cite­ment. “He show­ered me with beau­ti­ful mu­sic and po­etry,” she says. “He had im­pec­ca­ble taste. He was in­cred­i­bly pol­ished.”

Pa­tri­cia has a de­gree in bio­med­i­cal sci­ence and an­other in so­cial stud­ies. She runs a suc­cess­ful high-end med­i­cal beauty busi­ness in Queens­land. “I sup­pose I wanted a soul mate to share com­mon in­ter­ests,” she says. And now here he was com­ing home and on to a life with her. “He was al­ways on his way home that week – that hap­pened about six times.” When he got into trou­ble, of course, she helped the man she loved, she was in­vest­ing in their fu­ture, she would get the money back.

What Pa­tri­cia couldn’t know was that now that she was hooked, the fix was in. “It sort of be­comes an ad­dic­tion. Con­stantly re­leas­ing en­dor­phins in your brain. The log­i­cal part of your brain stops func­tion­ing,” she says.

He got held up in Malaysia for bring­ing too much money into the coun­try and he needed help for liv­ing ex­penses un­til he got it back. Then he was re­turn­ing her money by diplo­matic courier – with an exit fee of $25,000. Then an­other $25,000 for clear­ance into Aus­tralia. All doc­u­mented with a courier web­site and track­ing sheets.

“He took me on a fan­tasy jour­ney,” Pa­tri­cia says now. “You are so far in that you feel you have to keep pay­ing to get your money back.” More and more money, more and more fake doc­u­men­ta­tion. “It was in­cred­i­bly com­pli­cated.” Then, in April this year, a phone call came to say he and his lawyer had been in a bad car ac­ci­dent and now there were med­i­cal bills.

“My heart just dropped to my boots. I thought, ‘Oh, my God, I have been scammed’.” It was, she says, like a death. “I was just left there, hang­ing off the cliff with no legs.”

By the time she woke up from her dream of a happy end­ing, she had handed over $100,000. Not only was he not who he said he was, he didn’t even ex­ist. That per­son was a fabri­ca­tion. He was a crim­i­nal sit­ting in an in­ter­net cafe. He was, Pa­tri­cia now be­lieves, part of a highly skilled Nige­rian syn­di­cate op­er­at­ing out of Malaysia. “These peo­ple are well ed­u­cated, they are lit­er­ate, they are very ar­tic­u­late,” she says.

Kathryn Collins, a fraud preven­tion of­fi­cer with the Queens­land Po­lice, agrees. “There is not just one per­son. There is a whole net­work of peo­ple work­ing in the back­ground and they won’t stop un­til they get your money.”

Last year, ro­mance fraud took

$55 mil­lion from in­no­cent Aus­tralians who just wanted to be loved. Yet the ma­jor­ity of vic­tims are too ashamed to re­port it, so the real fig­ures may be sig­nif­i­cantly higher.

“There is no pi­rate with a patch over his eye,” the Act­ing Com­mis­sioner for Con­sumer Pro­tec­tion in Western

“It was a real high. He show­ered me with beau­ti­ful mu­sic and po­etry.”

Aus­tralia, David Hill­yard, says. “It is very much a groom­ing ex­er­cise and vic­tims are brought along gen­tly and slowly.”

An­other wo­man who was scammed, Elina Ju­u­sola, says the se­duc­tion phase “was very in­tense, in­cred­i­ble, like the best ro­mance novel you have ever read, very sexy, which makes you high as a kite.” Af­ter all the dis­ap­point­ments life can deal, why not take a risk on love?

Be­cause scam­mers op­er­ate out­side Aus­tralian ju­ris­dic­tion, there is noth­ing the po­lice can do. They can­not be traced and are rarely caught. Once the money has left the coun­try, it is im­pos­si­ble to get it back. It is the per­fect crime.

You might not know it when you are on so­cial me­dia, but scam­mers are ev­ery­where. They are en­demic. They come into your friend re­quest box on Face­book. Nice-look­ing men with re­spectable jobs. They are nearly al­ways wid­ow­ers, guar­an­teed to elicit sym­pa­thy. They present as worldly, suc­cess­ful, fi­nan­cially se­cure.

“They can tar­get you with dif­fer­ent types of emails and dif­fer­ent types of pro­files,” says Elina, who has writ­ten a book, Love On The Line, to raise aware­ness of the is­sue and help vic­tims move on. “An engi­neer from Texas who is a wid­ower with one child, a mil­i­tary per­son who is in Afghanista­n, or a civil engi­neer who is from Bris­bane, but is work­ing in Malaysia, busi­ness­men who travel a lot, a doc­tor who wants to build a hospi­tal in a Third World coun­try – you will fall for one of them.”

Says Pa­tri­cia Meis­ter, “They in­fil­trate so­cial me­dia, dat­ing sites and Skype. They are all fake.”

When you know what to look for, you will see the Face­book pro­file is new, there is no his­tory of posts that would tell you all about them, the “per­son” doesn’t have many friends and only one or two photos. If you run the photo through Google Im­ages, you may find that the im­age be­longs to some­one whose photo has been lifted from an­other site, their iden­tity stolen. Yet vic­tims don’t find this out un­til it is too late. We are built to give the ben­e­fit of the doubt. And we want so badly to be­lieve in fate and des­tiny. The scam­mers prey on de­cent peo­ple, “who be­lieve that other peo­ple also have in­tegrity”, says Elina.

Dr Cas­san­dra Cross, a Se­nior Lec­turer at the Queens­land Uni­ver­sity of Tech­nol­ogy who has spent years re­search­ing on­line fraud, says she has spo­ken to vic­tims “who in all other parts of their lives are suc­cess­ful. They are high-level public ser­vants, man­agers, busi­nesses op­er­a­tors, PhDs. Older peo­ple are at­trac­tive tar­gets be­cause they have ac­cess to su­per­an­nu­a­tion, life sav­ings, own their own homes. They are look­ing for that next stage of life. A lot of it is about lone­li­ness.”

When we fall in love, we tend to con­fide in that per­son. In those heady early days, we open up, pour out our heart; we trust to love. We are a se­cret so­ci­ety of two. Love is the strong­est drug there is and no­body thinks this could hap­pen to them. The scam­mer will mir­ror your life story, mak­ing him­self what you want him to be and lis­tens for vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties to ex­ploit. He gets into your life and your head. He will quickly move the vic­tim off the public sites and iso­late them into a pri­vate realm that be­comes their re­al­ity.

Dr Cross re­calls speak­ing to a scam vic­tim who had con­fided in the of­fender about an ill­ness. “It was not sur­pris­ing when the of­fender’s mother had that same ill­ness.”

Kathryn Collins of the Queens­land Po­lice gives an ex­am­ple of the way scam­mers typ­i­cally op­er­ate. “If you say, ‘My dog needs walk­ing’, you will find that they will have a dog of their own. Later on, their dog will get hit by a car and they can’t af­ford the vet fees. They know you love your dog and you’ll send money.”

Some scam­mers put chil­dren on the phone and the child will call the vic­tim “Mum”. The scam­mers never let you see them be­cause they are not the per­son in the photo they send. “When I asked him to do Skype with me,” says Pa­tri­cia, “he said the ho­tel has taken their we­b­cam down be­cause peo­ple are do­ing nude photos on it. But they can fake Skype as well. They can run a video loop through Skype.”

The scam­mers will phone late at night and early in the morn­ing in a love bomb bar­rage un­til the per­son is so sleep-de­prived that they don’t have a chance to think about any­thing else. It is some­thing close to brain­wash­ing.

Jan Mar­shall was in her early 60s. Things were go­ing well in her life. She had a good job in IT and had just moved from Bris­bane to Mel­bourne. Look­ing for a com­pan­ion to ex­plore Vic­to­ria with, she went on the dat­ing site Plen­tyOfFish. “I hadn’t done any­thing like that be­fore,” she says. The most likely vic­tims are peo­ple who are new to on­line dat­ing, in­no­cent and trust­ing. Jan was con­tacted by a Bri­tish engi­neer work­ing in the US who was in­tel­li­gent, in­ter­est­ing and “sounded ca­pa­ble”. He was 52, with a 15-year-old daugh­ter and di­vorced be­cause he had caught his wife in bed with some­one else.

“I said, ‘I am in Aus­tralia. Why did you con­tact me?’ And he said, ‘I will travel any­where for the right per­son.’ In my naivety, I took that on face value.”

It was, she says, “a typ­i­cal ro­mance, where they start por­tray­ing in­ter­est and then love. Dur­ing the ini­tial email­ing back and forth about what you think and like and don’t like,

“It is a groom­ing ex­er­cise and vic­tims are brought along gen­tly and slowly.”

I thought, ‘Oh, here is some­body who is ar­tic­u­late’. He kept pro­fess­ing so much love that, even­tu­ally, I be­lieved him. I came to be­lieve this was the man of my dreams. He asked me to marry him and I said yes. They get you fully in love with them and once they have done that they can start ask­ing for money.”

When he went to Dubai for work, he bought some oil, but a stop had been put on his bank ac­count while it was as­sessed for money laun­der­ing. He sent screen shots of bank state­ments from the NatWest bank in Eng­land show­ing £5.4 mil­lion (A$9.3 mil­lion) and pic­tures of a house in Cheshire. She now knows they were false.

“So I gave him quite a lot of money. I had the cash there and, of course, here is me think­ing I want to do this out of love, I want to be in a part­ner­ship with some­body,”

Jan says. “It was al­ways with the ex­pec­ta­tion that it was a loan and I would get the money back. And it went on from there to nu­mer­ous other small and large things.”

There are sto­ries within sto­ries in a scam. “They build up a sce­nario where it gets more and more scary,” she says. “He suf­fered vi­o­lence [and] threats of vi­o­lence. He was robbed. I of­ten had sus­pi­cions, but I thought this can’t be a scam, it is too in­ti­mate and per­sonal.”

It is dif­fi­cult for vic­tims to dis­cern what is hap­pen­ing be­cause they are blinded and it all hap­pens so fast.

And then there was the in­evitable car ac­ci­dent and the med­i­cal bills. “You get a call from a nurse or an ad­min­is­tra­tor from the hospi­tal and you have got to pay money,” says Jan. “You are listed as their next of kin be­cause you are their fi­ancée.”

When there was no more money, she re­ceived her last text. “It said, ‘I love you so much and thanks for ev­ery­thing.’ I as­sumed that was for all my help in Dubai. It felt a bit dis­mis­sive to me, but you jus­tify ev­ery­thing.”

Within a few days of not hear­ing from him, she re­alised it was a scam. Jan had parted with $260,000. That had been her su­per­an­nu­a­tion.

Vi­o­lated and hu­mil­i­ated, vic­tims suf­fer shame. Jan was badly de­pressed and hid away for a year. Not only is there the cat­a­strophic loss of money, but there is the dou­ble whammy of grief for the love that the vic­tim has in­vested ev­ery­thing in. “They make you feel so spe­cial,” says Jan. “It is not that you can’t let go of them, but you can­not let go of the emo­tional im­pact of be­ing made to feel spe­cial.”

Dr Cross says many vic­tims are too ashamed to tell friends and fam­ily what has hap­pened. Those who have chil­dren from a pre­vi­ous mar­riage of­ten hadn’t told them they were dat­ing on­line in the first place.

“There are so many peo­ple out there that are suf­fer­ing in si­lence.

They lose their health, their friends, their fam­ily, their jobs, they can be­come sui­ci­dal,” she says.

So, at the time when they most need sup­port, they can be os­tracised by rel­a­tives who call them stupid and are an­gry that their in­her­i­tance is gone.

Dr Cross says she knows of one wo­man who ended up liv­ing in her car be­cause her fam­ily wouldn’t help her.

“The word ‘scam’ be­lit­tles what has hap­pened,” says Jan. “They have been tar­geted by crim­i­nal forces.”

When the money dries up, the scam­mers can be­come threat­en­ing. “Once you stop send­ing the money, the real pig will come out,” says Pa­tri­cia Meis­ter.

Some vic­tims have shared in­ti­mate pic­tures or per­formed sex acts on we­b­cams and can be black­mailed. Vic­tims will be tar­geted again and again. “The of­fend­ers take their de­tails and sell them or trade them amongst them­selves. It is in­sid­i­ous and dev­as­tat­ing,” says Dr Cross.

Jan was re­trenched from her job and the Tax Of­fice hit her with a bill for $70,000 for tak­ing her su­per from a self-man­aged fund. Like so many vic­tims who have worked for 30 or 40 years and lost ev­ery­thing, she is fac­ing be­ing one of the age­ing poor and has had to start again at the age of 63. She has set up a sup­port group and speaks pub­licly to warn oth­ers. Con­sumer Pro­tec­tion WA and the WA Po­lice run Project Sun­bird, which mon­i­tors money go­ing to high-risk places and con­tacts po­ten­tial scam vic­tims. David Hill­yard has this ad­vice for any­one who may be tempted to get in­volved ro­man­ti­cally on­line. “You have got to meet peo­ple face to face. No mat­ter how many times there has been an air­line strike or a pass­port has been stopped, un­less you have met that per­son and ver­i­fied who they are, and done your back­ground checks on them, you must not send them money – no mat­ter how tragic the story.”

Kathryn Collins runs a sup­port group for scam vic­tims at Po­lice Head­quar­ters in Bris­bane. “We have peo­ple com­ing to the group that are just at their bot­tom, the low­est they could be. But we do see them re­cover.”

Ev­ery­one de­serves to be loved and many peo­ple do find le­git­i­mate love on­line – just make sure the per­son is who they say they are. And any­way, says Dr Cross, “How do you tar­get a preven­tion mes­sage against fall­ing in love?” AWW

“I of­ten had sus­pi­cions, but I thought this can’t be a scam, it is too in­ti­mate.”

If it sounds too good to be true, it prob­a­bly is. Visit ro­mancescam.com and male-scam­mers.com.

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PHO­TOG­RA­PHY ● RUS­SELL SHAKE­SPEARE STYLING ● LOUISE ROCHE
 ??  ?? Pa­tri­cia Meis­ter is $100,000 out of pocket af­ter be­ing the vic­tim of a ro­mance fraud.
Pa­tri­cia Meis­ter is $100,000 out of pocket af­ter be­ing the vic­tim of a ro­mance fraud.
 ??  ??
 ??  ?? Jan Mar­shall lost her $260,000 su­per­an­nu­a­tion to a scam­mer.
Jan Mar­shall lost her $260,000 su­per­an­nu­a­tion to a scam­mer.

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