The consumer watchdog has warned that the increased loneliness caused by the COVID-19 pandemic was one of the drivers behind Australians losing more than $200 million to romance scammers last year.
Australian Competition and Consumer Commission deputy chair Delia Rickard said the losses looked likely to be 44 per cent higher than the $131 million estimated in 2020. The figures are based on reports to the competition watchdog’s Scamwatch, as well as other sources such as the losses reported to banks.
“The pandemic has made it easier for the scammer to come up with excuses for why they can’t meet you in person,” Ms Rickard said.
“I think also people have been lonelier, with all of the lockdowns and clubs and other places where you normally meet people closing down, people have been turning more and more to online to find companionship.”
People over the age of 55 make up half the losses reported to Scamwatch and almost three in five victims were women. Most losses came through contact on social networking sites and online forums, but mobile apps were another significant source.
Ms Rickard advised doing a reverse image search because the scammers usually used a fake profile and also copying key phrases into Google to see if the messages matched a script.
She said scammers were usually quick to profess their love, but full of plausible excuses why they could not meet in person. While they often asked for funds with sob stories and plausible scenarios about why they can’t get to their money, the latest twist was to offer to help victims make an investment.
Fred Kiernan, a researcher at the University of Melbourne and co-host of the We Are Lonely podcast, said loneliness was a complex emotion, or cluster of emotions, that could be heightened during holidays such as Valentine’s Day.
“Having a holiday to celebrate romance can exacerbate feelings of loneliness of people who are single and who aren’t swept up in all of those feelings that romanticism promises,” Dr Kiernan said.