AUSTRALIANS lose $75,000 a day to online dating scams and just last month, the ACCC warned the online dating community against shady love interests.
Australia’s first online crime reporting network launched in November last year, and already 13,000 reports have been submitted. About 400 of those were regarding dating or romance scams, a spokeswoman from the Attorney-General’s department told news.com.au.
So who are the people that fall victim to online dating scams, and how does it happen?
We spoke to two women who were ‘Catfished’ – deceived online about the true identity of their romantic partner.
For both women, it was only when they started watching MTV’s critically acclaimed reality series Catfish, that they realised something wasn’t quite right.
SUSANNAH BIRCH. 28. Toowoomba, QLD.
When she was 15 years old, Susannah started talking to someone she believed was a 17-year-old boy in an internet chatroom meant for teenagers. They communicated on-and-off for 12 years before Susannah found out about his true identity. She’s been married to her husband, a different man, for eight years.
“We hit it off straight away. Most of the people in the chatroom were American but I discovered that he lived in the same state as me in Australia — about 10 hours away. We chatted online and on the phone. He was kind of my secret online boyfriend.
He didn’t mask his voice. He had an Irish accent and he also had one of those voices where you can’t really tell the age. It was halfway between masculine and feminine. So it was very easy for him to live up to the age he claimed to be.
We definitely spoke about meeting up a lot. But when you’re a young teenager, it’s normal when someone says, ‘Oh I’ve got to go to school’ or ‘I’m too young’ or ‘I don’t have a car’. He claimed he went to university in Brisbane and this was one of the ways I believed we would meet. He kept on saying, ‘I’m too busy with work and school and uni’. He always made an excuse.
But he proposed to me when I was 18 and I was overjoyed. I was like, ‘Finally, something’s going to happen!’. Then two weeks later we had a fight and he said we were over. Then he tried to get back with me and that’s when I said, ‘No, that’s too far. We’re done’. I met my husband not long after that, but we never really cut ties.
We stopped talking for maybe a year, but we always got on so well and he said, ‘We could still be friends, because you’re the only person I can talk to who truly understands me’. We’d still chat on the phone for years afterwards, up until very recently. I had doubts, but I pushed them away.
I always thought he was lying to me about something. Maybe he didn’t have a fancy job like he said he did, or he hadn’t gone to university — something he was embarrassed about.
There were all these little things that just never quite added up. I Googled him and searched him on Facebook. No matter how hard I looked I could never find a trace of him, but I also could never find anything to prove he wasn’t real. I didn’t think everything he had every told me would turn out to be a lie.
“I definitely think my personality type and my childhood had something to do with it. I’ve very emotional, I get excited about things more easily and buy into things. I had an abusive mother. She tried to kill me when I was a child. So I suppose I was more susceptible.
I’d never heard of the term ‘catfishing’ until last year. I watched a few episodes of the TV series Catfish and it helped me realise that there might be some other ways to find out if this guy was real or not.
I went on this website called socialcatfish.com. They said they could track down anyone with very little information and it only cost me $30. I sent them some photos of this guy and his email address — that’s all. They tracked down his real Facebook account and they also found the school he went to in Ireland in the 1960s. Using the images I sent them, they found he was sending me photos of one of his Facebook friends.
Because he’d sent me so many photos and they were all consistent, I believed him. I rang his work phone and it went to voicemail — it was the same voice but a different name. I went cold all over when I found out. I rang him and confronted him and I haven’t contacted him since.
I believe he has at least three grown children and grandchildren and he’s now in his early 60s. When we started talking he would have been in his early 50s.
I haven’t pursued any legal action. I still feel like we had some kind of warped connection. I think if I had met him when I was 20 years old he would have been a good friend and mentor.
I occasionally miss him, but for the most part, no. It made me look at the friendships I have with real world people I have around men and it made me realise that they’re a lot more important to me than some guy on the internet.”
KYLIE JOHNSON. 32. Sydney, NSW
Kylie started chatting online to a man she thought was her dream guy in 2012.
“I got to a point where my life was so busy that physically going out to meet people was just not something I could do. So I thought about giving the online dating thing a go.
I got talking to this gentlemen. Well, I thought he was a gentlemen. I thought he was my soulmate. He was in the US Army, but he was based in Australia.
I don’t normally trust people I don’t know, but with him it was like I could tell him anything. He told me he was a single father and the mother of his daughter has passed away.
He got deployed overseas but we still managed to maintain contact. I knew what it was like for soldiers to go overseas because I’ve dated lots of people in the military. So we started talking about when he was coming back and what our relationship would be like. But it just never seemed to happen.
We would Skype but I would be on video and it would just be a picture of his face with audio. I started getting suspicious.
I’d been through a lot of bad relationships and the fact that this guy was giving me attention and just the way he made me feel — I was blindsided. I was in denial that it could be anyone but him. I really struggled to believe that someone could lie to someone else like that. I thought, ‘Do these kind of people really exist?’
It wasn’t until I started watching the show Catfish that my scepticism really went into overdrive. It’s one of my favourite shows now. I thought, ‘I’m going to do my own Catfish’.
I went to Melbourne for a holiday and I had his address so I went to his house.
And he was just not the person I had been talking to. He didn’t have a daughter. I’d sent gifts for her birthday and for Christmas, because I grew up without a Dad and I thought it must have been so awful not to have a mother.
“The only thing he was truthful about was that he was in the army. He was like, “I’m still the person that was typing, it shouldn’t change anything’. But for over a year I thought he was someone else. He would send consistent photos, but they were photos of his friends. I shut down all my online profiles and said, ‘I don’t want anything to do with you again’. I don’t think he had any remorse.
I was just in tears. I told everyone about this guy. It had felt like someone had literally ripped my heart out and crushed it right in front of me, because that was two years of my life.
My friends did raise red flags. They did start warning me. I guess they were the ones that planted the seeds that something wasn’t quite right.
Afterwards they said, ‘We knew he was dodgy from the start, but we didn’t want to rain on your parade after seeing the smile on your face’. He would send me flowers and hampers in the mail with the sweetest cards that made me think I had found my dream guy.
It was tough for my parents. My mum was very angry that someone could hurt me so badly and put me through that. I was going to take him to meet my mum — for me that’s a huge deal.
I definitely don’t see it as a mistake. He obviously came into my life for a reason and I’ve definitely learned from the experience. I’ve recently struck up the courage to go back to online dating but I’m super careful now. As soon as those alarm bells go off, I don’t shut them off.”