Romance scammers are skilled at targeting the primal needs of their victims. (ABC News: Matt Eaton)
It can be surprisingly easy to fall prey to a romance scam — and has nothing to do with stupidity, an online fraud expert has warned.
- Smart people regularly fall for romance scams and it can be easy to fall for a person you’ve never met, says Suli Malet-Warden
- Hundreds of relationship scams reported in the four years to 2018 cost an average $117,000 per event
- Ms Malet-Warden says people are more trusting with online relationships because they see no non-verbal cues
It is a ‘romance’ between people who never meet, based purely on text messages, internet liaisons and phone calls.
Yet victims all too often are willing to give away thousands of dollars and risk facilitating a crime.
A senior Sunshine Coast police detective called it “blatant stupidity” for a 60-year-old woman from Nambour to become involved in a $6 million online love scam.
But a counsellor who works with such victims on a daily basis said the scenario was “way more complex”.
Suli Malet-Warden, an identity security counsellor at national identity and cyber support service IDCARE, said smart people regularly fell for scams.
“We speak to them all the time — it’s definitely not stupidity.”
How does it begin?
Ms Malet-Warden said to prompt someone to fall in love with a scammer, the victim was first “seeded” with an idea.
“They ask for a small amount, and over a period of weeks the person is totally in love and caught up with situation, but there is always an excuse,” she said.
“The love interest works overseas, there is always some disaster that would prevent them from getting money to see the victim.”
The fraud is called an “advanced feed fraud” as the victim gives money expecting to get it back and all sorts of false ID is provided to let the victim believe they will get the money back.
Another trick is to isolate the victim from family and friends.
“Isolation tactics are a classic tactic that are important,” Ms Malet-Warden said.
“The victim is so wrapped up in the story — friends and family will be much more wary and they have a completely different angle because they haven’t been manipulated in the same way.
“It is critical for the criminal to isolate the victim, so they think their friends and family are being the wedge between their loving relationships.”
People are losing everything in these scams, from superannuation to life savings, and on top there is the loss of a person they believed was the love their life.
Ms Malet-Warden said the victims were “happy to give because they are in love”.
Pushing all the right buttons
Ms Malet-Warden said scammers used the complex language of love to connect with their victims in the early stages of a process that regularly hooked smart, educated people.
“The language is really important. When we speak to victims they say they’ve been connected, prolifically in the initial stages, using extremely validating language and we are all suckers for it,” she said.
“Being told how much they are loved, how wonderful they are … they use that sort of validating language and the prolific nature of it, regular text messages not just through the day, but through the night.
“The victim is then expecting those validating messages to come through. They’re incredibly supportive, they’re appealing, they’re flattering, they’re soothing.
“It is quite addictive.”
Ms Malet-Warden said the process results in the brain releasing specific chemicals.
“So things like dopamine, which causes euphoric feelings that are pre-emptive to falling in love, adrenaline, norepinephrine … oxytocin levels rise in these cases, which increases our level of trust,” she said.
An IDCARE study of 583 relationship scam cases reported from 2014 to 2108 across Australia and New Zealand revealed scammers used “specific and highly validating narrative to gently groom the victim into a loved-up state so powerful, they agree to part with money”.
The report showed those relationship scams cost more than $21 million over the four-year period, at an average loss of more than $117,000 per event.
Only $578,400 in total had been recovered, according to the report.
Ms Malet-Warden said studies suggested people were more trusting with online relationships than they would be face-to face.
“We are more trusting of online relationships because we are not seeing the non-verbal cues that might happen if we are sitting in front of somebody,” she said.
How to spot a scammer on a dating site
Ms Malet-Warden said the first indicator was often a victim being asked to move off the dating site onto either WhatsApp, Viber or Messenger.
Another tell-tale sign is if the person starts using “validating, loving, language quickly”.
“If this happens, think about it. They can’t be in love already when they had just started talking,” she said.
The biggest red flag is the moment money becomes involved.
“If you are asked for money, don’t go there,” she said.
Are scam victims especially vulnerable?
Ms Malet-Warden said although there was a perception that scam victims were more vulnerable than the average person, everyone was seeking a sense of connection.
Ms Malet-Warden says someone asking for money is the biggest red flag. (ABC South East SA: Kate Hill )
“I think there is a primal need, so I don’t think we can box the victim into this idea that they are sad, lonely or naive,” she said.
“We all want support. I spoke to a victim last week who was five years beyond the death of her husband and she said the scammer was so incredibly supportive, and that’s what she fell in love with.
“She felt this nourishment. I think it is a very primal need, it is a very human thing.”
Ms Malet-Warden said there was suggestion scammers were being trained by psychologists to help them with scripting.
“I think anyone with the silver tongue, anyone who has the ability to be a smooth operator, it doesn’t take that much,” she said.