February 2014: This Valentine's Day, SCAMwatch is warning Australians looking for a romantic connection online to beware of scammers seeking to steal their heart and money.
Scammers will go to great lengths to court their targets and trick them into thinking it's a genuine relationship. They often approach victims through legitimate dating websites or online forums, and then move the communication off the platform and away from any safeguards in place by the site provider, where they can manipulate victims into handing over money. Scammers may also ask to chat via webcam, secretly film the interaction, then blackmail victims into handing over money in exchange for not sharing the footage with family and friends. They may even offer to meet victims in person, and will either not turn up, or worse put the person in a dangerous situation that can have tragic consequences.
Scammers will do anything to gain their victim's confidence and trust. They will invest months and even years grooming victims into believing that the connection is real. They may hide behind a fake profile of an attractive person, whose image has been taken straight from the internet. They may even seem to know all about the target's interests and hobbies as they have researched the person online or befriended them through an online forum.
Scammers are also expert at pushing people's emotional buttons. They may profess their love, send gifts, make promises and propose grand plans for the future – anything to strengthen the connection. Once their victim's defences are lowered, the scammer will spin an elaborate tale of woe about how they need financial help with a crisis, such as being ill or stranded. If the victim pays, the scammer will continue to ask for money to help them out of other situations. Scammers often request that the money be sent via wire transfer as it's almost impossible to trace and rare to recover money sent this way.
If you are looking for love online, don't let a scammer leave you broke and with a broken heart. If your online admirer asks for money, not matter what the reason is, ask yourself: 'Do I really know who I'm dealing with?'
How the scam works
- You meet someone online through a dating or social networking website whom you seem to just 'connect' with.
- The person may have an appealing profile, claim to have similar likes and dislikes or have gone through similar experiences.
- Your online admirer will soon ask you to communicate through a private channel such as via email or webcam.
- After you have established trust and rapport, they will ask you for money to help cover costs associated with illness, injury, a family crisis or travel to see them.
- Alternatively, your admirer will secretly film a webcam chat between you and them, and then try to blackmail you into handing over money in exchange for the footage being kept private.
- Regardless of the approach, the scammer will typically ask you to send them the money via wire transfer.
- If you send them money, they will continue to ask for money to get out of other problems or to withhold the footage. Amounts requested may initially be small but tend to increase over time.
- If you send money to a scammer – especially via a wire transfer – it is almost certainly gone forever. Just as importantly, your heart may be broken and trust shattered.
- Keep your personal details personal: Never share personal, banking or credit card information or photos with someone you don't know and trust – especially photos or webcam of a private nature –scammers have been known to use this material to blackmail victims.
- Watch out: If an online admirer asks to communicate with you outside the dating website, such as through a private email address or over the phone, be very wary – scammers want you away from any safeguards that are in place on the site.
- Search: Use the Google 'search by image' tool to check the authenticity of any photos provided by someone you met online as scammers often use fake photos they find online.
- Think twice: Never send money to someone you have met online and cease contact with anyone who asks. Beware especially of any requests to send money via money order, wire transfer or international funds transfer – it's rare to recover money sent this way.
- Avoid: Scammers may request to meet in person, sometimes overseas. This is potentially a life-threatening risk. If you do decide to meet, choose a public place, make sure you tell your friends and family where you are going, and put arrangements in place with them to ensure your safety.
- Report: If you think you have provided your financial details to a scammer, contact your bank or financial institution immediately. If you think you met a scammer through an online dating service, let the site operator know.
You can report scams to the ACCC via the report a scam page on SCAMwatch or by calling 1300 795 995.
SCAMwatch has issued several radars about romance scams, including the following in 2013:
- July 2013: Don't let your heart be blackmailed
- February 2013: Protect your wallet and your heart this Valentine's Day
Stay one step ahead of scammers, follow @SCAMwatch_gov on Twitter or visit http://twitter.com/SCAMwatch_gov.
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