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 60swith 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. For Jane, like thousands of other Australians looking for love, has fallen victim to an online dating scam, losing $90,000 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 $70,000 in compensation, for which he asked Jane’s help; she duly sent $10,000. He had a car accident and seriously injured two other people, had $5,000 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.
Jane received emails from people claiming to be his son, his financial adviser and his heart specialist, with official-looking documents attached. She was reassured after calling his son’s US phone number and hearing a realistic voicemail message bearing his name. (Scammers can use phone and voice technology to divert numbers to other countries, and create real-sounding voicemail.) In total, she sent $90,000 in multiple tranches to accounts all over the world.
“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.”
Jane started doubting Fred’s story after the Dubai car accident and emailed him. “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: $30,000 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.
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.
By that stage Fred was incommunicado, apparently laid up in hospital with a heart condition. Jane received no answer from his son or doctor when she emailed them about the money laundering, nor when she asked them to ask Fred to call her. 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 $90,000 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, 1200 people reported losing $25 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 10 per cent of the true levels, as reporting rates are very low.
The commissions data shows that althoughpeople aged 45 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 45 and over comprise more than 80 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”.
Jane says despite having lots of friends and good relationships with her children, she is lonely. “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 2005 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 20 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 30 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.”
Ms Rickard says a black market has even sprung up enabling scammers to buy six months’ worth of email scripts to groom a potential victim. “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 10 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.
“I just felt as if I was nothing,” she says. “I have dealt with it myself, but a lot of people wouldn’t be able to do that.”
The Queensland Fraud Squad set up the first support group for victims of scams, and similar schemes are being set up in Western Australia and South Australia. There is nothing available in Victoria.
It seems unlikely that victims like Jane would have recourse to suing the dating sites through which they are preyed upon. A spokeswoman for compensation lawyers Maurice Blackburn says a class action would not be possible as each case is slightly different, while individual legal action is unlikely to succeed as the sites protect themselves from liability in the fine print of their service agreements. She said other cases, such as where people have tried to sue social media sites such as Facebook for facilitating defamation, have not succeeded.
Jane says being scammed was the worst experience of her life. “I can deal with emotional sorrow, like when my husband died and when my partner died. That’s part of life, you know? But dealing with this, you think to yourself, why was I so stupid?”
Still, her hunt for Mr Right online continues. Now, though, she limits candidates to those she can meet in person.