It took six months for Kathryn to fall in love with Michael, but only minutes to reveal him as a romance scammer.
Accusing Michael of being a scammer was an unusual act of assertiveness for the reserved 55-year-old healthcare worker from the NSW Central Coast.
It was an unlikely act too; Kathryn (not her real name) had every reason to believe Michael was the caring, genteel man he presented as. They spoke regularly over the phone and, from his would-be London apartment, Michael arranged gifts of flowers, chocolates, and movie tickets.
Kathryn, divorced from a decades-long marriage and facing an intimidating and foreign dating scene, thought she had found in him a diamond in the rough. He was worth the long-distance relationship.
Tips to avoid a romance scammer
- Never wire money to someone you are dating online.
- Romance scams are deliberately ‘hyper-personal’, meaning they are of an overly intense nature that is designed to capture and isolate victims. What out for signs of increased jealously and demands for attention and your time.
- Speak to a friend who is not invested in the relationship before any major event like wiring money or paying for travel.
- If you are intent on wiring money to your relationship partner, use official and local credit card networks, never transfer via Western Union or similar outlets.
Through friends, she tells us how her relationship with Michael, which began on a dating site in late 2016, before quickly switching to email and social media, became possessive in its latter weeks. Facebook messages appeared more regularly in a tone that, with the benefit of hindsight, seemed more demanding: “what are you doing online”, “who have you been speaking to” they asked.
Michael was set to travel to Australia mid last year. They were both excited. Days before he was set to fly, he sent an exasperated message claiming he bought the wrong non-refundable plane ticket and that his passport was cancelled for elaborate reasons. He needed $7,450 to cover fares and fines.
Kathryn’s online sleuthing about his predicament gave her pause to reflect on his frantic request for money, and his escalated messages.
He called again, and she answered. “I think you’re a scammer,” she told him. A beat, then, a laugh. “Yeah, you got me,” he said. “But you know what? I’ve got 12 of you on the go.”
It’s impossible to know how Michael operated. He may have been a lone wolf. Or he may have worked in a call centre alongside other scammers.
“I’m convinced [romance scamming] is their day job,” says Sean Lyons, director of technology and partnerships at Netsafe, an online safety non-profit based in Auckland, New Zealand.
Lyons has not seen evidence of romance scammers operating in coordinated international networks, but says he sees indications – business hour operations and consistent messaging structures for example – that some scammers work in call-centre style environments.
“There may be much larger operations where you have [scammers] working in shifts and handing off to each other,” he says. “They may have CRM (customer relationship management) systems and work an account (a victim) in the same way that staff in high-pressure sales do.”
In such an environment, text messages to victims could be written by any scammer while voice calls would be made by a consistent perpetrator.
There is further evidence of romance scammers coordinating their operations. FBI Special Agent, Christine Beining, said in February last year that romance scammers typically work together sharing intelligence on vulnerable victims.
“From what we can tell, these are usually criminal organisations that work together,” Beining says.
“And once a victim becomes a victim, in that they send money, they will oftentimes be placed on what’s called a ‘sucker list’ [where] their names and identities are shared with other criminals [for] future recruitment.”
Lyons agrees that romance scammers are likely to organise. At present, evidence from Netsafe’s now shelved Re:scam artificial intelligence-like chat bot – which sent more than a million email replies to scammers in a bid to waste their time and energy – indicates a scattergun mass-email approach to targeting victims.
Victims of romance scams are not stupid or gullible. They can be anyone.
Romance scams are deliberately ‘hyper-personal’, meaning they are of an overly intense nature that is designed to capture and isolate victims.
University of Warwick professor, Monica Whitty, in a paper published in February this year revealed victims are typically “middle-aged, well-educated women” who “tend to be more impulsive, less kind, more trustworthy, and have an addictive disposition”. Whitty’s work is designed to assist in the development of scam preventive and awareness programs.
Defence against romance scammers is tough for those involved in online dating. The Federal Government’s Scamwatch site has good advice which centres on not sending money to partners and provides clues to help spot fake social media profiles.
More broadly, experts agree that those in online relationships should keep trusted friends abreast of significant events including any plans to travel or requests for monetary loans.
“Talk to someone not connected to the romance before a major event,” Lyons says.
“A dog dying in surgery, a passport not coming through, or bribes to corrupt regimes; talk to someone who isn’t in love with the person before you put pen to paper on that Western Union slip.”
As a last resort, Lyons says, those intent on wiring money to their love interest should stick to official and local credit card networks which can offer traceability that Western Union and other non-conventional payment providers cannot.
Academics have examined other hallmarks of romance scammers. They reveal psychological manipulation as a universal tool in romance scams which includes techniques akin to domestic violence.
Queensland University of Technology academics, Cassandra Cross, Molly Dragiewicz, and Kelly Richards, describe the four signs of this manipulation including isolation, monopolisation, degradation, and withdrawal.
If this story has raised any issues for you and you’d like to speak to someone, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636.