Internet-borne crime isn’t always about abusing or subverting technology. One of the more lucrative scams around has merciless criminals fleece lonely and emotionally-vulnerable people. To these fraudsters, their victims are rich pickings if only they can win their trust.
The extent of the problem is hard to gauge as much of it underreported, but at least one federal police force has cottoned on to what is happening and is attempting to undo some of the damage the scammers wreak upon everyday people.
In Australia, Queensland is the only state in the country that runs a specialised unit to combat Internet scams as well as a support group for victims thereof.
Detective Superintendent Brian Hay of the Queensland Police Fraud and Corporate Crime Group leads the unit, along with Detective Senior Constable Graham Edwards. In conjunction with the specialised unit, both police officers also started a support group for scam victims.
Edwards and Hay say that anyone with human emotions can fall victim to romance scammers and that victims aren’t stupid – just lonely and gullible, looking for love and company at dating sites and elsewhere on the Internet.
Speaking to SC, Hay pointed out that the people who had fallen victim for the scams were often tertiary educated and experienced people, usually in the 45 and older age bracket. They are male and female.
The average amount each person lost was $350,000, Hay says.
Being scammed is embarrassing and hard for people to own up to, he says, with many continuing to send money to the criminals even after they’ve been told they’re victims of fraud. The further people sink into the scams, the more likely they are to continue paying the scammers, Hay says.
Three-quarters continue to pay up, despite being told to stop, Hay says.
The consequences for the victims of scams can be severe, totally devastating their lives and not just financially.
“Many people who have been through the scams suffer depression and some attempt or commit suicide,” Hay said.
“One elderly person’s family was actually happy when she was proven to have been scammed, because it proved them right that she was being stupid,” Hay says.
The support group for victims was set up some two years ago Hay explains and now has around 130 people in it in total. Anywhere from 20 to 40 people a month attend the group, which has worked better than official channels to provide support to people who have fallen victim for a crime considered too embarrassing to talk about.
While it can be difficult for outsiders like the police to get through to scam victims in order to stop them from being exploited, peer support from those who have been through the same thing is effective.
“The group is, if you like, reverse social engineering,” Hay says.
And, these romance scams are effective: Det Supt Hay says that the latest figures show $7.5 million being transferred to Nigeria alone, which is in fact a drop of an earlier $8 to $10 million estimate.
“That doesn’t take into account money going into other countries such as Malaysia, the UK and elsewhere,” Hay says.
“It also doesn’t include large electronic funds transfers which we know are happening,” he says.
On average, 500 people a month around Australia fall victim to scammers, according to Hay.
Hay believes the problem is larger than figures show, due to underreporting. He first started looking at the issue in 2005 when he heard of a man trying to commit suicide by driving a car off a cliff.
The reason for the attempted suicide was labelled as “Nigerian fraud” which at the time wasn’t very well-known or on the list of crimes, Hay says.
He and his colleagues started to look into the problem and interviewed 26 people who had transferred money to Nigeria. Of these, 25 had been defrauded to the tune of $7.2 million
Over the years, the problem has become much worse. In 2009, Hay and colleagues repeated the survey, speaking to 200 people.
Of these 186 had been victims of fraud, losing $21 million in total.
While romance scamming crime featured in just 7.1 per cent of incidents in 2005, in 2009, it accounted for 70 per cent of fraud victims.
“The latest figures I’ve seen show that it features in 83 per cent of scams,” Hay says.
Together with ABC reporter Sabour Bradley, Det Supt Hay flew to Ghana to confront the scammers and to gather evidence that the suitors two of the victims had been communicating with simply did not exist.
Ghana is something of a hot spot for romance scammers, with the US embassy in the capital Accra warning those who seek love over the Internet with denizens of the West African country to take extreme care.
“Many thousands of Americans have reported losing money through such scams,” the embassy warns.
The US embassy says that once money’s been sent, it’s very difficult to recover it as the scammers are “entirely portable and elusive,” working from Internet cafes.
Hay and Bradley managed to track down two Ghanaian scammers who were shown to be arrested by the police in the programme. They also to visited Barclays in Accra to verify that one employee allegedly working at the bank and who a Queensland man had been sending money too, did in fact not exist.
Back in Queensland, Hay and Bradley presented their findings to the two male victims who had been conned out of large amounts of money, closing the circle for the two.
There’s an app for that too
So common are online romance scams that it has created the beginnings of a protection industry along the lines of anti-virus software.
For instance, Cupidscreen by Melbourne private investigator Julia Robson is an Apple iTunes Store app that alerts users to scams by trawling through Nigerian and Russian criminal profiles and identifying typical scammer behaviour. Robson says romance scams have reached an epidemic level.
“Due to the embarrassment of victims and reluctance for them to speak out, it continues to be an under reported crime. The simple answer is If you’re interacting with individuals online then you’re vulnerable,” she says.
Like Hay, she says the victims are should not be thought of as stupid. In fact she says the latest line of victims include doctors, university lecturers and highly sociable people.
Her app asks a series of questions on the user's online relationship before generating a risk score. More than 500 people have downloaded the app.