'Don't fall for the sob story': Police issue romance scam warning

How to avoid being ripped off in a romance scam

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Top financial crimes detective says be on alert for romance scams targeting older men

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Seniors searching for love online are being urged to keep an eye out for scammers, after detectives in NSW uncovered a sophisticated romance con targeting older men.

You may think that falling for an online dating scam is something that would never happen to you. But it is something NSW Police Financial Crimes Squad Commander, Detective Superintendent Linda Howlett, sees all too often.

"It does happen - to men and women. And it's very, very sad, and can have a devastating effect on the victims both financially and emotionally," she said.

From being duped into handing over money and property, to their identities being stolen, Det Supt Howlett said scammers groom their victims over a period of time and target vulnerable people.

"Victims could be elderly people living on their super and suddenly their financial back-up has gone and in many cases they never get their money back," she said.

Many older people using online dating sites are genuine people looking for companionship, she said. "They put their heart on their sleeve and are very trusting."

Which is exactly what scammers are looking for. "They target and profile their victims. They do their homework on people and get to know them. Then they hone in on them, specifically targeting people who are maybe lonely and looking for a companion."

Victims of this type of fraud can often end up with trust issues. "They are often really embarrassed and become further isolated from their family or community."

So how can you avoid getting ripped off?

"Don't fall for the sob story," Det Supt Howlett said. "Often the perpetrator will talk about how they've lost their job or give a sob story, then go on to talk about the possibility of investing together or going into business."

She said other red flags include the person not wanting to meet up with you.

"They might say they can't because they don't have enough money, they're self-isolating or they're in another state and are waiting for money to come through."

Warning bells should also start ringing as soon as you are asked to transfer money or hand over bank details.

"You may be asked for your credit card details, or online account details, or copies of documents like your passport or driver's licence. Don't hand it over," she said.

Scammers may use these details to try to apply online for loans and credit cards.

Fake profiles

Dating and romance scams often take place through online dating websites, but scammers may also use social media or email to make contact. These scams are also known as "catfishing".

Scammers typically create fake online profiles designed to lure you in. They may use a fictional name, or falsely take on the identities of real people.

According to Scamwatch, run by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), dating and romance scams made up one fifth of losses across all scams reported in 2019.

Last year, Australians reported almost 4000 dating and romance scams with losses of more than $28.6 million, and Scamwatch says these numbers will be just the tip of the iceberg.

Beyond traditional online dating websites, the highest losses were from romance scams originating on Instagram and Facebook. Conventional dating platforms, such as Tinder or Match.com, also had high losses.

A new trend emerging in 2019 was scammers increasingly turning to apps like Google Hangouts, or online games such as Words with Friends and Scrabble, to con their victims.

"We've seen an increase in reports from people who did not originally seek an online relationship but have been caught up in a dating and romance scam," said ACCC deputy chair Delia Rickard.

What to do if you think you've been scammed

If you think you have been scammed, report it to the website, app, or social media site where the scammer first approached you. Let them know the scammer's profile name and any other details that may help them to stop others being scammed.

Dept Supt Howlett urges anyone who thinks they may have provided their account details to a scammer, to contact their bank or financial institution immediately, then contact the police.

"There's no doubt there are more victims of this type of crime out there," she said. "We encourage anyone who thinks they may have been a victim to come forward. We won't judge you."

You can also report scams to the ACCC via the report a scam page. This helps warn people about current scams, monitor trends and disrupt scams where possible. Include details of the scam contact you received, for example, email or screenshot.

For more information go to scamwatch.gov.au

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