A Queensland woman who believed she was falling for a US Army official she met online, has instead fallen victim to an intricate romance scam that saw her unknowingly launder $150,000 for an organised crime group.
- The ACCC says money-laundering romance scams are on the rise during the pandemic
- Police warn that scam victims can still be held liable for stolen funds
- Experts advise to meet contacts in person or see them via a video app
Cyber security experts have said such romance scams were on the rise, with fraudsters targeting the isolated and vulnerable during the coronavirus pandemic.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) said there had been an influx of romance scams in which people were used as mules for money laundering.
Police warned that those who fell victim could face charges themselves, with ignorance not always a defence.
This week on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, the 49-year-old Marcoola woman was lucky not to face criminal fraud charges, after her bank account was used to launder money stolen from a Victorian business.
According to police, the woman thought she was receiving the inheritance of a man who posed as a 37-year-old US Army member based in Darwin on the dating app Tinder.
The woman told police she started talking to the man, “Bren Anderson”, who asked her to store his hefty inheritance in her bank account as he did not have one in Australia.
The $151,250 in funds belonged to a Victorian business that unknowingly made a large payment to scammers instead of a supplier it intended to pay.
“We identify them as a romance scam, but they do develop and end up facilitating the transfer of funds from companies that lose money and sometimes personal property as well,” Detective Senior Sergeant Daren Edwards said.
Victims used for money laundering
ACCC deputy chair Delia Rickard said $26.6 million had been lost to romance scams in Australia this year, with the watchdog fielding 2,600 complaints.
She said while romance scams in which victims transferred their own money was common, being used as a mule for money laundering was also on the rise.
“It’s becoming clear that we will have lost more to romance scams this year than last year; in fact, every year the losses are going up,” she said.
“All transactions over a certain amount need to be reported to AUSTRAC (Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre), which is Australia’s anti-money-laundering organisation.
“Certain types of transactions produce red flags, so scammers try to work out how to avoid those red flags, sometimes through these romance scams.
Ms Rickard said victims needed to be educated about money laundering to ensure they did not fall victim.
“You can get yourself into a lot of trouble, including prison time,” she said.
“They are very good at tugging on the heartstrings.
“The golden rule is just don’t transfer funds and don’t receive any money.”
Scammers target lost partners, jobs
According to cybersecurity expert David Lacey, crimes of this nature have risen by more than 40 per cent in recent months with direct links to the pandemic.
“Over the past four weeks, we’ve responded to 174 engagements from across the country of people who experienced similar problems … it’s growing and prevalent because of COVID,” Dr Lacey said.
“We’re seeing a really dominant spike in Victoria where people are more restricted in their travel and interactions.
“For a number of people, their only interaction with other humans now is online — that’s where life has taken them and they’re quite vulnerable, and during COVID that vulnerability has increased.”
Dr Lacey said crime groups often targeted victims by looking for vulnerabilities, including having recently lost a loved one or other hardship.
“It tends to be more the older members of the community who might have, within the past 12 to 24 months, had an event occur in their lives, separating from a partner, lost a job,” he said.
“It’s not that someone is silly or stupid — there’s certainly no relationship to intelligence — it’s often a combination of different factors that leads them to being more vulnerable.”
According to Dr Lacey, cyber criminals often spent weeks, even months, grooming their victims and were nearly never caught and charged.
“There’s a huge disconnect between what cyber-criminals are doing and achieving and bringing them to justice,” he said.
Meet via video, in person
Dr Lacey encouraged all people dating online to ensure they met in person or at least asked to see the person via video.
“They’ll use COVID as an excuse to not meet with someone physically and claim they’re working overseas, maybe working in the military or on an oil rig,” he said.
“They won’t show their faces live, just share photos. Very rarely do we have people calling and saying, ‘They showed me their face via Skype’. That doesn’t happen.”
He said to never share personal information, IDs or passports or make personal transactions for a person you met online, and he encouraged using free online tools like reverse image searching.
Companies not responsible
University of Queensland researcher Madeleine Taylor has studied more than 100 dating websites and apps in Australia and the corporate responsibility of companies to protect their consumers from scammers.
She said larger companies like Bumble, Tinder and E-Harmony were getting better at scam-proofing their platforms, including through the use of photo and face recognition.
“Bumble does it and Tinder has started a trial in the US using photo recognition, where you upload a photo and they get you to take a live photo of yourself doing a specific pose,” she said.
“They can verify that you are a real person and the testimonial photo is yours; that’s a really valuable tool for websites to implement.”
Ms Taylor said companies held no legal obligation to use protection measures on their platforms, but it benefitted their users and made them feel safer online.
“It’s completely an ethical and discretionary responsibility; there’s nothing in our legislation that suggests that they have to do this,” she said.