Looking for love in the modern world is never easy. On reality television dating shows, people who are branded to ‘not be there for the right reasons’, are usually looking for their 15 minutes of fame or social media followers. Unfortunately, out in the real world, there are many people claiming to be looking for love but are actually out for more sinister reasons: romance scams.
At its most basic level, a romance scam is when someone starts an apparent romantic relationship with the view to get something else out of the other person entirely, usually money.
The first thing you might think of when you think about romance scams is the out-of-the-blue emails from a Nigerian prince, or a lonely worker on an oil rig.
These days the majority of scammers operate on online dating sites and apps, which is where a large number of people go to find love every day.
Traditionally with online romances, red flags that the person you are talking to isn’t who they say they are include a reluctance to talk face-to-face, such as via video chat, someone who is only available to make contact but never to receive contact, or someone who very quickly asks you for money. And while these still hold true, romance scammers have become much more sophisticated, and it can be much harder to determine who is in it for love, or who is in it to get something out of you.
Confusingly in some cases, the scammer is exactly who they say they are physically, so you may speak to them, video chat with them or even meet them in person. But their intentions are never to actually build a relationship, but instead, extort money or other valuable information from you.
Nikki Rudge and Louise Schilds from Customer Owned Banking Association’s financial crimes team have decades of experience dealing with scams. They say if you’re dating, there are a number of potential warning signs to look out for to avoid a romance scammer.
These include constant promises of visits or calls which are always delayed or cancelled, insisting on secrecy about the relationship, such as not telling family and friends, or asking you to do something which doesn’t feel right, such as sharing personal information or sending money transfers.
“Scammers are very, very good at what they do, and they lend a lot of legitimacy to their activities,” says Louise.
Another red flag is if they’re acting with a sense of urgency, or if the relationship moves very quickly, like the person confessing their love within the first week of meeting. But sometimes, the red flags only show themselves very gradually, which can make it hard to notice.
“The problem is people think that romance scams happen really quickly. And some of them do if they get a really good mark. But quite often they're probably scamming six or eight people at the same time. So they've got plenty of time and plenty of scope. People don’t always realise how patient scammers are,” says Nikki.
As for the scam itself, it can present itself in a variety of ways. A common one is the scammer sharing the story of having an injury or a sick family member who needs expensive medical treatment. They could also say they’re in a situation where their money is tied up and they can’t access it. That’s usually when they’ll ask for money. But it’s not always that straightforward.
“It could be the case that you are asked to do a bank transfer, and you receive money from another victim of a romance scam, and are then asked to transfer the money to the scammer’s account. So you are unknowingly participating in money laundering, which can be even more serious,” says Louise.
“But it even could just start with small things, like asking you to get something witnessed by a JP on their behalf, and it builds up over time.”
It also may not be specifically asking for money. Identity theft is an increasing issue, and you may be unwillingly giving away a lot more information than you realise. From the details you tell them, such as your pet’s name, they may be able to figure out your bank password, and make transfers out of it themselves. If they get enough information, they could also sell your identity on the black market.
According to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s Scam Watch, there were 3,424 reports of romance scams in Australia in 2021, with victims losing a combined amount of $56,175,428. And that’s just the scams that were reported.
“I don't think we could really even take a stab at what percentage wouldn't be reported, but I would say the majority wouldn't be reported. People do often work it out fairly early, and they might realise what's happened and be embarrassed, and just chalk it up to experience,” says Nikki.
It might sound simple, but Nikki says one of the biggest tools everyone has at their fingertips is trusting their own gut: “Take a moment to stop and think. Ask yourselves if things seem realistic.”
Louise’s tips are to be extremely cautious of your personal and private information, including digital pictures, and don't send money to people that you don't know, haven't met, or you don't trust.
If you think you’ve been scammed, your very first call should be to your bank, not the police.
“If you’re in the middle of things and something doesn’t sound right, put your password in incorrectly three times to your online banking, and it will lock you out, meaning it will also lock anyone else out. Then contact your bank, and they will probably pass you along to their scams or financial crime team, who will launch an investigation,” says Louise.
When you report a potential scam, you could not only be saving yourself from losing any more money, but you’re also potentially helping other people avoid the same scam.
“These scams are very rarely an isolated incident, so once we have a confirmed name, it’s passed through all of the banks to try and further stop the scammer in their tracks,” says Nikki.
Louise adds: “Financial crimes teams are experts at these scams. We’re not here to judge or destroy relationships, but to help and protect people, and do everything we can to stop scams or prevent further losses from happening.”