With the sophistication of this scam, it would have been easy to fall victim to it.
But not for Rose, a 47-year-old from Sydney, who said despite her “shame and embarrassment” about being scammed she wanted to share her story to help others.
Rose wanted to withhold her real identity in sharing her story, but is an educated, intelligent and respected professional who didn’t think it was possible she could have been sucked into a dating scam.
The divorcee said she met an attractive, divorced Norwegian man on dating website Plenty of Fish, who also lived in Sydney and had a daughter who lived in the UK with her mum.
They chatted for a couple of weeks and spoke on the phone a few times.
“Within that time he won a lucrative work contract against tough competition which would take him first to Melbourne, then offshore for three weeks to an oil and gas exploration platform in the Timor Sea,” she said.
“He was going to fix some broken pipes for a large oil company and it had to happen quickly before the oil leak went public. Unfortunately we were both busy with work and didn’t get to meet before he went away.”
Looking back now, Rose said that was a warning sign.
“He went off to do his contract, he sent me videos of his helicopter ride there, and of his arrival at the platform,” she said.
“Unfortunately his client had a strict blanket policy on photos and videos while there so he wouldn’t be able to send any more.
“He messaged me every morning and night, and sometimes during the day. He was two hours behind, so usually our chats went late into the night. Some nights I was too tired to chat, but he would send me lovely, long messages in the middle of the night that I couldn’t resist reading.”
Over the next two weeks they kept chatting, and talking occasionally on the phone.
“He started to develop feelings, but I wasn’t so quick to jump in, I’d been very hurt in the past. He wanted to get to know about me and what I was doing, and vice versa,” she said.
“We talked about our first date when he returned home, I really wanted to meet him to see if this might go somewhere.”
Curious about where her online interest was and the company he was working for, she read all about it online. Everything checked out. She was fascinated and impressed by what he was doing.
One night a bad storm hit where he was, and she even checked the weather report – it did look bad.
“His accommodation was on a ship moored near the platform, and the storm knocked out the ship’s communications,” she said.
“The only option to restore the internet was to try a satellite hookup. Unfortunately this attempt overloaded and destroyed the communication system so the only form of communication until another solution could be worked out was via text.
“The lack of internet made his work very difficult, he couldn’t access emails necessary to keep his project on track.”
Eventually the man asked Rose to access his email for him. She was happy to help.
“He clearly trusted me, and I wanted him to finish his project and come home so we could meet,” she said.
“He was such a sweet and romantic man who might be who I was looking for. He certainly felt that way about me.”
Rose emailed his supplier on his behalf to place an order for the materials he needed to progress his work.
He then asked her to access his business bank account to pay his supplier for the materials, using their invoice to verify the details.
They even did it together because he needed to provide Rose with an SMS verification code to complete the transaction.
But after continued unsuccessful attempts to restore the internet, a few days later he asked her to check his email again to see if his order had been confirmed and to help him arrange transport of the materials from Australia to the platform in the Timor Sea.
When she arranged another transaction and it didn’t go through, he even asked her to engage with his bank in an online chat. They said his account had been blocked due to attempted activity from unusual locations.
Rose was told his bank was in the UK and he would have to present in person to have his account unblocked or wait 28 days.
“In his view his only option was to negotiate a reduced or deferred payment to his supplier and to solicit funds from friends and family to pay them,” she said.
Rose said the man told her one friend came through with a third of the money, his ex-wife and the ship’s captain but he was still short.
“He wasn’t eating or sleeping, he had no way out and was facing financial and professional ruin,” she said.
“Of course I knew what was coming. When he asked me for money I told him I wasn’t in a position to assist. By now I’d researched online romance scams and realised how I’d been suckered in.”
Rose said a part of her denied what was happening.
“We had a connection, he thought I was amazing and was convinced I was the one for him,” she said.
“I thought we might have a future together. We had so much in common, we’d offered each other moral support through challenging times, and he was so attractive.
“But of course every single thing about our interaction was a lie.”
Rose said the man’s profile had a single photo and he was a self-employed foreigner living in Sydney.
His romantic words were pulled straight from the internet.
He had no family, his parents were dead and he had no siblings.
His bank existed, but the interface and online chat were fake. His supplier existed but the emails and invoices were fake.
The platform and the company he worked for existed.
“The helicopter company existed, but a phone call to them confirmed that all flights were grounded for winter, and his video was taken in Canada,” she said.
“His English was terrible for an educated Scandinavian. Sometimes it was better, depending on who was actually chatting to me.
“YouTube revealed his accent was not Norwegian, it wasn’t Nigerian either.
“His memory of our topics of conversation was sometimes patchy, sometimes excellent. For someone who loved music as much as I do, his knowledge of music was limited. His knowledge of Sydney was poor.”
Rose said the man eventually responded to ask her to send a further email, and then to tell her he’d been put under medical observation due to a dangerous spike in his blood pressure.
He also sent her a text from his client threatening legal action against him due to his breach of contract.
“By now I had I downloaded our entire exchange and sent it along with a report to both the Australian Cyber Security Centre and ScamWatch,” she said.
“I blocked and reported his number.”
She reverse image searched his stolen photos and let the real Canadian man know they were being used in an online dating scam. One of them included his daughter.
“I told my boss I may have committed the criminal offence of money laundering,” she said.
“I cleared all stored passwords from my phone and reset them on my computer. I fielded a fake call the next day from Home Affairs claiming they had a warrant for my arrest for committing fraud. I blocked and deleted the number. I admitted to friends how stupid I had been.”
Rose then wrote some rules – swipe left on profiles with only one or two head shots, especially if they are self-employed and foreign.
“Don’t chat for more than 1-2 weeks with anyone who won’t video chat or meet in person.
“If you’re 40+ and looking for a long-term relationship be extra careful because we are the target demographic for scammers, and we’re vulnerable.
“Trust your instincts and disengage at the first red flag. Even if they’re genuine people, you deserve better.
“Tell trusted friends about who you’re meeting online. When you’re emotionally involved it’s hard to be objective, but they’ll tell you if it sounds dodgy.”
Rose has since realised other people she had chatted to online may have been scammers too.
“Fortunately I didn’t lose any money, or share any personal information,” she said.
“The Australian Cyber Security Centre referred my report to the NSW Police but won’t be investigating, as the likelihood of identifying the perpetrators is slim. It does also mean they won’t be prosecuting me for probable money laundering. And my eyes are now well and truly open.”