Victorian MP Marlene Kairouz is delivering a dire warning for Australian lonely hearts just in time for Valentine’s Day: don’t be fooled by dodgy online scammers.
This year, $4.2 million dollars was lost in Victoria alone to romance con-artists, often given away by trusting, vulnerable people searching for love.
Australians on the whole lost more than $24 million, with more than $2 million lost in February alone.
“They spin elaborate webs of lies to fool people into handing over their hard earned money,” Ms Kairouz said.
“If you’re looking for love online this Valentine’s Day, click with caution – don’t give your bank details to anyone online and be cautious of anyone who refuses to meet face to face.”
Jan Marshall fell victim to one such scam in 2012, having just moved from Brisbane to Melbourne and wanting to find someone to explore Victoria with.
It was her first time going online.
She was left devastated after ‘loaning’ all her money, $260,000, to her internet boyfriend, an ‘engineer’ living in Dubai who claimed he wanted to spend the rest of his life with her.
Instead, he swindled her out of her life savings and cut off all contact. She never saw the money, or heard from him again.
“I hated myself for 18 months,” she said. “I’m a professional person. Successful in every other part of my life.”
After a long recovery period, she found “the more I spoke out about it, I found that my self-respect returned.”
Ms Marshall now runs an on online support group and a blog for victims of romance scams.
She said she wants to warn people of the dangers, and support those who have been taken in, who often simultaneously suffer humiliation, grief for the loss of what they believed was a significant relationship, and severe financial distress.
Many who have contacted her are suicidal, she said, and too ashamed to talk to family or friends about being scammed.
Many more, she said, even take out loans to give to their internet partner, which they are unable to pay back.
“The level of intimacy that they build up is extreme,” Ms Marshall said.
Within four or five weeks of meeting online, she had already agreed to marry her boyfriend, and he had professed his undying love.
“Talking to them three or four times a day, they will keep you sleep deprived, by having conversations late in the night and early in the morning so you’re unable to make rational decisions,” she said.
But looking back, she said all the red flags were there.
After contacting police, who pursued the matter with Western Union, Ms Marshall said she discovered the money she had sent – for all types of excuses including injuries, car accidents, international tax misunderstandings – had really been transferred to Nigeria.
Ms Kairouz hopes Ms Marshall’s experience can educate others.
“These are low-life, dodgy con-artists,” she said. “They are actually quite sophisticated, they know exactly what they’re doing, they’re using a very sophisticated formula and attracting people like Jan into their scam.”
She tells people in online relationships to be cautious of those who refuse to meet in person, make “over-the-top” expressions of love quickly, and ask for money for any reason.
Money sent overseas, she says, is nearly impossible to get back.
A reverse-Google image search will often reveal if a profile picture is fake or being used repeatedly on different online profiles.
“The fallout from a romance scam can be emotionally and financially devastating,” Ms Kairouz said.
“If you think you’re being scammed, report it as soon as possible so we can stop these criminals in their tracks.”
Scams can be reported to Consumer Affairs.