Older people are especially vulnerable to online dating scams yet in Australia there is little support for victims, reports Julia May. Most weeks, I take my laptop to a local cafe to work. Most weeks, a raucous group of older men and women sits on the table beside me. At the centre of this group, with the loudest laugh, is a lady in her late 65swith twinkly blue eyes and a cheeky sense of humour, who wants to be known in this story as Jane Russell, after the Hollywood starlet. Each week, Jane stops to chat and asks me what I'm working on. When once I replied that I was writing a profile – the story of someone's life, Jane turned serious and said, One day I'll tell you my life story and you can put it in the paper. Eventually she did tell me her story and it reminded me how punishing loneliness can be, particularly for older people. It can make them very vulnerable, even those who seem confident and popular.
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For Jane, like thousands of other Australians looking for love, has fallen victim to an online dating scam, losing $95,555 and her lifelong sense of trust. Jane is no idiot. She's known both happiness and heartbreak: first, with her late former husband, who died after suffering dementia, and then joy for two years with a man she met online, before he died of lung cancer. She's been single since booting out her most recent partner – an abusive, alcoholic man – two years ago.
She seems self-assured and street-wise. And yet Jane didn't smell a rat when an American-Italian man called Fred White, whom she met online last year through the dating site Zoosk, declared his undying love after only weeks. Darling Jane, he wrote. I put you in every part of my future imagination and you have won my heart already. You are my soul mate.
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I Love you more and can't wait to show you just how much I love you. All we have shared is no joke and life is short. Shortly thereafter Fred started asking for money. His story was familiar to those who know the scammers' formula: a lonely widower, he had tragically lost his wife and a young child, and his one remaining son lived in the US.
He ran a construction business and was based in Melbourne, but regular travel made it difficult to meet up. He and Jane had several phone conversations in which his accent sounded American with an Italian inflection. Fred's story quickly took one dramatic turn after another. He had to urgently travel to Dubai as one of his managers there had been injured and died. He had to pay the man's family $75,555 in compensation, for which he asked Jane's help she duly sent $65,555.
He had a car accident and seriously injured two other people, had $5,555 stolen, was arrested and imprisoned in Dubai, before becoming critically ill with a heart condition requiring special herbs costing thousands of dollars that needed, inexplicably, to be sent to Britain. I thought, 'Oh my god, you poor thing', she says. I felt sorry for him. Was she in love with Fred? Perhaps not.
But I probably did think we had a future together.