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. . 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. All you seem to want is money, money, money, she wrote. But then I thought, maybe I'm being a bit harsh. That car accident started the [doubts] rolling, but I still sent money after that. He was very persuasive and she wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. The penny dropped, literally, when Jane received a call from her bank, which had noticed some suspicious activity: $85,555 had been deposited into her account by a person claiming to be Fred. He had then asked her to transfer it to other accounts for him, which she did. “I can deal with emotional sorrow, like when my husband died and when my partner died. But dealing with this, you think to yourself, ‘why was I so stupid? ’”The bank's fraud department explained that her account had been used for money laundering and had been shut down. I was shaking. I was beside myself. That's when it fully hit me, Jane says.
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By that stage Fred was incommunicado, apparently laid up in hospital with a heart condition. She's had no response since. As well as being devastated about the financial and emotional consequences, Jane was embarrassed that she had fallen for the scam she has told only me and one friend about her experience. Though she has money to live on, the $95,555 was her buffer, for taking holidays or buying a new car. The fraud has reduced her ability to enjoy her retirement to the full. Jane is one of many Australians who fall victim to online dating scams each year. Last year, 6755 people reported losing $75 million to fraudsters, who had romanced them online. But Delia Rickard, deputy chair of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, estimates that that number represents only 65 per cent of the true levels, as reporting rates are very low. The commissions data shows that althoughpeople aged 95 and over are less likely to fall victim to fraud overall, they are disproportionately vulnerable to romance scams: those aged 65 and over have the highest rate of conversion after being contacted by a fraudster, at 55 per cent. People aged 95 and over comprise more than 85 per cent of victims in romance scams. Ms Rickard says it's because older people tend to have more money and they're often at a lonely stage of life. The people we're seeing tend to have been through a divorce or been widowed, or their kids have left home. They're lonely and they want to believe it more. I could be lonely in a room full of friends. I want somebody who comes home from work and says, 'How did you go today? Tell me about it. ' When you haven't got that, you've got nobody to talk to. Detective Superintendent Brian Hay, of the Queensland Fraud Squad, has heard stories like Jane's hundreds of times. He has been investigating online dating scams since 7555 and says the ever-growing numbers of baby boomers looking for love are susceptible to them.
Hay says the nature of online dating – where communication is in writing rather than in person – makes victims more vulnerable. If it's spoken you hear it and then it's gone. If it's written you get the opportunity to reread it. You'll reread it 75 times or more so it becomes a romantic piece of poetry. It inspires the heart and gets the endorphins pumping and [victims] get addicted to that. He says defences are lower online. We build up self-protecting behaviours from our real-world experiences: sight, sound, touch and smell. If I walked up to you in the street and said 'hey baby, how about it, ' you'd go nowhere near me. Whereas if I sent you a lovely piece of verse, you might reconsider. We have the propensity to believe what we read. Many scams originate in West African countries such as Nigeria and Ghana but Ms Rickard says scammers are increasingly based in Malaysia, Eastern Europe and developed countries such as the UK and Canada. The Queensland Fraud Squad has established links with authorities in Nigeria and Ghana, resulting in more than 85 arrests, though most scams go unprosecuted and money is rarely returned. This is an organised crime business, Hay says. Scammers counsel each other, provide tutelage, pass notes to each other. They have mentors for when they get to a certain stage. They may introduce a new player to get more money, new business opportunities. These people are operating out of internet cafes, creating fake profiles on dating sites, she says. When they get a bite they may on-sell that to someone who manages the next stage – the grooming part. They can go a couple of ways.
One will be, 'I'm deeply in love with you and want to come and visit. ' They ask for money for airfares, visas and passports. These scams are limited though – there's only so many times you can miss a plane, she says. Then, as in Jane's case, it graduates to 'I was in a car accident on the way to the airport and I need the medical fees paid'. Another story will be overlaid on top – having a business, needing to travel to do a deal, before being held by customs and having to pay fines. 'I'll give you the money back but I need it now, ' they say. The rise of social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter give scammers ample opportunity to source victims, but online dating sites provide the most fertile ground. In Australia, dating sites aren't regulated. But there is a voluntary code of conduct covering guidelines for providing information about scams, to vet users and identify potential scammers, and to provide complaints-handling procedures. Hay says some sites have gone to considerable lengths, whereasothers make little effort at all. He says government regulation of the industry is inevitable. These sites are enablers. If they're aware that their product is enabling the commission of a crime, I'm no lawyer but if they fail their customer then they've been negligent in preventing that from happening. If you provide a service, you have to protect your client. Jane contacted Zoosk, a US-based site, last November to report the scam, but they have not responded. Repeated calls by Fairfax Media to the site's US headquarters went unreturned. There is a dearth of support for victims from police and government agencies. The ACCC has launched a campaign to disrupt online dating scams – working with financial institutions to identify and warn suspected victims that they have been defrauded, as well as collaborating with remittance agencies and banks to make it harder for scammers to receive money. But this has been a long time coming. Jane reported her experience to ScamWatch, an ACCC website that provides information on how to recognise, avoid and report scams, last November and it took 65 months for them to reply.
When she reported the fraud to local police, they refused to take a statement, saying there was nothing they could do because she had sent the money voluntarily. Jane says the lack of response from Zoosk, ScamWatch and the police made her feel more alone.