Like many modern day romance stories, it began by swiping right on Tinder. What followed has left one woman $540,000 out of pocket by a man she believed was the love of her life. Sam Sherwood reports.
Joanne* was at home one evening in late July 2021 with her phone in one hand, browsing Tinder.
Aged in her 50s, she had been living alone for many years.
Among the profiles that stood out was 58-year-old Dale Plumides. It said he was a hard-working father, who was based in Auckland, and looking for someone to spend the rest of his life with.
The photo appeared to be of a “genuine nice guy”, so Joanne swiped right. The next day she was notified they had matched.
She recalls saying hi, asking how he was and how his day was. Over the following two weeks they exchanged emails and phone numbers.
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‘Your prince charming’
A few days later the man calling himself Plumides said he felt he could share anything with her.
He said his father was an American-born international businessman, and his mum a New Zealander, that he had a degree in civil engineering and started working with his father in California after he finished college. His father had since died and his mum wanted to return to New Zealand.
Dale said he was a contractor, mainly doing rig constructions and renovations or over water bridges.
“I intend quitting field works this year but likely to continue working from a home office while my men in the USA do all the field operations. Hence the reason why my company is still based in the US rather than in NZ – almost all my skilled engineers lived in the States.”
Do you know more? Email email@example.com
Dale sent a link to his company.
He wanted to spend the rest of his life “enjoying the fruit of my labor”.
“I want a woman who would be my best friend and partner in everything. I’m talking about a relationship where we would continue to love each other more, as the days pass by, till we cant make love anymore and all we do is play bingo LOL.”
He sent a photo of himself with his 17-year-old son.
Joanne replied with some of her background and mentioned she was painting her rental property, which she was putting on the market.
Dale said he had been in Dubai for the last six weeks working on a bridge building project which was nearly completed; that he should be back in NZ within five weeks.
He wrote, “I don’t need a super model, I rather need a very good friend who knows when I am tensed just by looking into my eyes lol a super woman. The whole world may be mad at me, but if she is smiling at me, I would care less”.
Dale referred to himself as Joanne’s “prince charming”, and called her his “sugarpie” and “my ballerina lady”.
Joanne replied, “You had so better be real”.
Dale said he believed the internet was the “best and also the worst way” of meeting people.
“Best in the sense that, if two people meet and are as open as a book with each other with no lies, I promise it can never fail. The worst in the sense that if these two meet and there is even a single atom of lie in between, there comes disappointments, which is like a small stone that can bring down a big wall. I wouldn’t ever lie for anything!! My mother brought up a better man than that LOL.”
The couple talked multiple times a day on the phone. He said he was unable to talk on Skype due to the laws in Dubai. Dale had an American accent.
Tragedy appeared to strike on August 30, when Dale emailed Joanne to say that four staff had suffered serious injuries at work, delaying his return to NZ.
He asked Joanne if she could contribute $1000 for the injured. She sold some possessions and said yes.
The pair continued talking on the phone, planning their lives in Auckland. Joanne shopped for her soon-to-be “son-in-law”, and helped with his application to the University of Auckland.
On September 20, Dale emailed that he was handing over the project he was working on and would be leaving the following week. He also sent her a news video, showing a woman purporting to be a journalist discussing the Shindagha Bridge in Dubai, saying the construction was carried out by Dale’s construction company.
Dale said he could not wait to spend the rest of his life with Joanne.
“I love you with all my heart! Never thought you could ever feel the way I feel about someone you’ve never met but I do… You are my everything and I will do anything for you, just name it.”
This is a fake news video provided by the swindler to the victim.
Dale said his Dubai project would pay him $9m, but he was worried about hackers and didn’t want to keep his money in Dubai.
He wanted Joanne to log in to his bank account and transfer the money to one of his colleagues.
Uncomfortable, Joanne initially said no. When she relented, and logged in, she could see $9m in his bank account, with a list of other transactions.
There was also a message from the bank saying Dale’s account was frozen due to unpaid taxes. Dale said he needed to pay a percentage of taxes for the job he was doing in Dubai for the money to be released. He wanted Joanne to pay some of it.
About a week later the couple spoke on the phone about this. Joanne ended up hanging up, upset.
She then emailed, apologising, but reiterated she did not have any money until her property sold.
“The huge pressure you keep putting on me to get money for you to get you out of the situation that you put yourself into is dam unfair.
“I hope you find a way back to nz for you and your family. I doubt I will hear from you again good luck.”
Dale called her a “liar and cruel person”.
“This will be the last time you’d ever hear from me.”
Joanne blocked Dale. However, he tracked her down at work.
He had been under a “huge amount of stress” and was sorry.
But, he still needed financial help.
Joanne did not want to send money overseas. But Dale had a back-up plan. A friend in New Zealand had an account with Kiwibank that she could transfer the money to.
She got an overdraft and agreed to send three payments totalling $22,000 to help cover his IRS debts. He’d sent legitimate-looking screenshots of the money he owed. The bank also confirmed to Joanne it was common for accounts to be frozen for tax debts.
Dale said in 48 hours the money would clear, and he could repay her.
But a month later the account was apparently still frozen and Dale said the IRS claimed he owed further taxes. Joanne had sold her rental home – the proceeds were intended for her child – and agreed to pay the money directly to the IRS. Dale said that was “too complicated”.
Eventually, she agreed to transfer $228,000.
In January 2022, Joanne reminded Dale he owed her $253,000, and asked for a copy of the payment to give to her accountant.
Dale promised to repay her, and apologised.
He later called her and said his accounts were still on hold and there were more taxes. He now needed a further $290,000.
“I’m like ‘are you f…… kidding me?’ Seriously. This is your s…, you need to sort it out.”
Joanne by now had been made redundant.
Nonetheless, she relented.
“Please please make sure this is it before paying as we will lose our home otherwise.”
Dale said all would be well. He was “100% positive this time around”.
Meanwhile, Joanne had been buying items for Dale’s son, Nathan, who was flying to Auckland for university, supposedly on March 9.
However, the trip was delayed when Dale informed Joanne the teen had been hospitalised with Covid-19.
Then, out of the blue, Dale called with shocking news.
“He said his son had died, and obviously he was in hysterics and said he didn’t see any point in living anymore, and he just hung up.”
Joanne struggled to contact him again.
On April 1, she contacted private investigator John Borland to say she was worried about her partner who was overseas and wanted to see if he could help track him down, as he had talked about killing himself.
She emailed Dale telling him she had hired a PI. He replied shortly after.
“Sorry for not responding sooner, I’ve been busy with the funeral and all. Nathan will be finally laid to rest next week, he’s been embalmed since. I’ll get back to you after everything is sorted,” he wrote.
“Miss you and love you.”
It was his final communication.
‘It was so convincing’
When Borland told Joanne it was all a scam, she felt sick.
“I looked up online ‘are you being scammed’ and you just go down the 10 points it’s like yes, yes, yes… I can tick off every single one of them…
“It had been 10 months. It was phone calls three times a day and ongoing emails and plans to go on holiday and making plans so that the kids had trusts going forward… We looked at houses… he was calling me his wife. It was so convincing.”
“It’s my whole life savings. I’ve worked two jobs the whole of my life. I’m a single parent.
“I kept saying to him, I can’t do this, if I do this I’m going to lose our home, and he’s like ‘well why would I put us in a situation where we’re going to lose our own home.’ It was just a manipulation which I can’t really describe. It just seems so stupid.”
She’s re-read the emails dozens of times asking herself where she went wrong. She points to the argument in September as when she should’ve stopped, and gone to the police.
“I just wanted my money back….and I kept getting told it will be 48 hours.”
Embarrassed, she has not told anyone.
She’s also hoping, while knowing how unlikely it is, that the money might be returned.
Joanne contacted the police on April 7. Too embarrassed to go into a police station, she filled out a form online.
The Search for Dale
Stuff attempted to track down Dale Plumides.
His LinkedIn account no longer exists, no-one responded from his work email, and his cellphone numbers are disconnected.
A number on his website went to someone in Big Bear Lake, California, who said they did not know Dale. Joanne confirmed the man’s voice did not match Dale’s.
The United States Securities and Exchange Commission’s company register did not reveal any proof his company ever existed.
As for the Shindagha Bridge, another company, Six Construct, had been appointed as the infrastructure contractor.
A spokesperson for Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority confirmed it couldn’t find any record of Dale or his company – its registered address belongs to a restaurant and brewhouse renowned for its award-winning handcrafted beer.
Borland, a former Detective Senior Constable in the Queensland Police Service who also worked in the Intelligence and Counter-Terrorism Unit, has worked on multiple relationship fraud cases internationally.
The ‘news video’ “instantly” concerned him.
“Alarm bells started ringing… I could tell it was fake straight away.”
Quickly he realised there were no records for Dale Plumides.
“He doesn’t have any involvement in the construction company, as he said. Once you look and you find Sheperd Construction it basically talks about residential builds, nowhere near anything to the scale of engineering multi-million dollar bridges.”
Identifying the owner of the Kiwibank account was key to trying to track down who was behind the operation.
“I think it is an international, with connections locally here. So there’s no standalone offender, there’s multiple offenders, a pseudo-ring.
“…There’s been lengthy communications and multiple parties involved in it. It’s quite obvious that it’s just not one person…it’s on too large of a scale and I think the volume defrauded is too high.”
Those responsible knew what they were doing.
“If you look at the profile that’s been used… you think success, well-manicured, middle-aged… it’s the full-corporate look and to a victim that’s fallen on hard times, has gone through some traumatic events, that’s going to be like a lifeline.”
Joanne is by no means alone. He often gets calls about romance scams, and is working on similar cases.
“In this instance if you had’ve done your due diligence you would’ve been able to identify some risk in terms of legitimacy, but at the same time if you’re falling in love with someone you’re going to look to turn a blind eye to it. That’s human nature.
“I’ve got a lot of empathy for people defrauded in these kinds of ways. Their overall goal is to find love.”
Police confirmed they had received a complaint from Joanne.
However, on Saturday, Joanne received an email from a police officer to say that due to the nature of the transactions there were no lines of inquiry available to police.
“Unfortunately many of these types of transactions involve banks in countries where there is little or no ability for international Police forces to investigate.
“However the international banking community is better placed in the first instance to follow this up.”
Joanne’s case was “closed”, and would be held by police pending any additional information.
A Kiwibank spokesperson said they were investigating, but declined to comment further, citing privacy.
Since Covid-19, the bank had seen an increase in romance and remote access scams with more people being connected to their devices.
Kiwibank has partnered with IDCARE – a national support service that advises how to respond to data breaches, scams, identity theft and cybersecurity concerns.
Joanne also complained to Tinder. On April 8, it said it took the safety of users “extremely seriously”.
“For privacy reasons, we cannot disclose the outcome of this investigation. However, please know that your report was evaluated, and has been actioned in accordance with our policies.”
A Tinder spokesperson told Stuff they thanked Joanne for coming forward.
“We have a zero tolerance policy for this type of behaviour and are constantly investing in ways to keep members safe while they’re using Tinder – including a robust suite of safety features and in-app safety education, fraud detection technology, and working directly with law enforcement when needed.
“Scams and frauds are the enemy of genuine connection, and exposing these offences makes our entire community stronger.”
New Zealand cyber-security agency Computer Emergency Response Team’s (CERT) senior threat analyst, Sam Leggett, said romance scams were commonplace on social media or dating apps and websites.
“We want to be clear that no-one should ever be embarrassed about being taken in. The scammers are very sophisticated, and their techniques closely mirror legitimate connections.”
Leggett inspected the purported bank website Dale sent Joanne.
The link Dale sent was allegianceb.com. The genuine bank’s URL was allegiancebank.com.
Leggett was “pretty certain” the link was a phishing site – “one of the most sophisticated dating scams I’ve seen” – set up for romance scams. The site was hosted by a small UK company, and had been registered last year.
“Someone has put some time and effort into this.”
Red flags for romance scams included matches asking for financial details or wanting to move off the original platform to another, like WhatsApp.
A Westpac spokesperson confirmed Joanne contacted the bank, concerned about money she had transferred to another person. Westpac’s financial crime team was investigating.
“Becoming a victim of a scam is upsetting, especially when it involves someone you trust, and we sympathise with [Joanne] during this stressful time.
“Scams have become increasingly sophisticated, and we recommend customers contact us as soon as possible if they suspect they have been scammed.”
Banking Ombudsman Nicola Sladden was seeing a “concerning rise” in fraud and scam complaints, year on year.
There were a few scam types where customers were tricked into sending their own money to a scammer – such as online purchase scams, investment scams and romance scams.
The sending bank was unlikely to be liable where a person instructs it to send money to a scammer.
“It is the customer’s responsibility to ensure the legitimacy of the person they are sending funds to. But banks may be liable if they fail to detect warning signs of a scam.”
The ombudsman expected banks to take “reasonable steps” to identify and act on red flags such as a customer being evasive or unwilling to provide information about the purpose of a transaction, or where their description of the purpose had a “hallmark” of a scam.
In many cases the funds are sent to overseas banks, but sometimes they are transferred to another New Zealand bank account. She expected the New Zealand recipient bank to co-operate with the sending bank’s attempts to recover the funds once the sender has realised the scam.
“But unfortunately recovery is often not possible.
“Recipient banks are not usually able to share information about the recipient of the funds with scam victims due to the duty of confidence they owe to their customer. The New Zealand Police may be the more appropriate forum for victims to raise concerns about the actions of the person who received the money.”
‘I’m never going to go on Tinder again’
Aside from the financial loss, Joanne’s mental health is suffering. She’s barely slept, has trouble eating and has panic attacks.
“Obviously I’m never going to go on tinder again am I? I guess I’m meant to be on my own. I’ve lost everything and I don’t know how to tell my child.”
She’s angry at herself and feels guilty for letting her family down.
“I just think it’s cruel what he’s done… he knew I needed that money for a specific thing, to not let down my child.
“You should’ve taken the 30k and run. It’s just cruel to keep leading someone on and then calling them your wife and you know saying we were going to get married … we’re going to mix both families together.”
She doesn’t know what she would say if she could stand face to face with whoever is responsible.
“I’d just probably say ‘what the f…? Why? Why did you do this to me? I’m a good person and I’ve just been taken for granted.”