With Valentine’s Day nearly upon us, so too is peak season for e-romance and dating scams, with recent data showing Australians lose the most money to such scams in February.
According to University of Canberra Associate Professor of Information Technology and Systems, Dr Abu Barkat ullah, February saw the most money lost to e-romance scams of any month in 2020.
“February is very popular with Valentine’s Day,” he said. “Around $6.1 million was lost to romance and dating scams.”
Over the last few years, and especially during the past 12 months, money lost to e-romance scams has been trending upward.
In 2020, Australians lost $38.9 million to online romance and dating scams, a 45% year-on-year increase from the $26.8 million lost in 2019.
“Last year with COVID-19, a lot of people were working from home isolated and that might be part of the rise,” Dr Barkat ullah said.
“We used the internet a lot and a lot of people were isolated.
“But in February we didn’t have Covid, so I can’t blame Covid for February being so high.”
It appears the uptake in technology consumption, accompanied by more time alone for many, is responsible for the spike in Australians falling victim.
Scamwatch data shows Australians lost $5.9 million to romance and dating based scams in January 2021 alone, a massive year-on-year jump from the $1.38 million lost in January 2020.
Curiously, that same Scamwatch report showed that 72% of the money lost came from women.
“In the romance area, females are more vulnerable,” Dr Barkat ullah said.
From an age perspective, he said people aged 65 up are the most vulnerable to e-romance scams.
“They are losing around $7.8 million (per year), but they are not reporting much,” Dr Barkat ullah said.
“Since they’re not reporting, they don’t know what to do.”
The age group losing the most money are people aged 45-55, but they are reporting proportionately.
“People aged 25-34, you might find this group are tech savvy, they know precautions and netiquette, but they lost $7.4 million,” Dr Barkat ullah said.
“It’s not about being tech savvy, it’s not age; the problem is education and understanding what we should and shouldn’t do.”
How to date online safely
According to Dr Barkat ullah, there are a few common behaviours and patterns people should be wary of when looking for love online.
“What happens during any dating romance scam, is the cyber criminals are looking at our profiles,” he said.
“They get our profile, then look into it, what type of music, books or movies we like … They read our posts and tweets sometimes, look at our dislikes; it’s broader than just the dating websites.”
Scammers will also go to great lengths to make their profiles seem as legitimate and trustworthy as possible.
“They’ll post photos that look very professional and claim to be a citizen of first world country like the US or Australia and maybe say they work for the government or defence force,” Dr Barkat ullah said.
“Sometimes if you meet in a dating website, they’ll say let’s talk outside the dating app over email, SMS or messenger.
“That means you cannot blame the dating website anymore, and they don’t want to damage their reputation on that site.”
Dr Ullah said then once they’ve established themselves as a legitimate person and built a rapport, the scamming begins.
“Once this is done, they might ask favours like ‘oh, pick up a package or resend a package for me’,” he said.
“Sometimes they might break the promised meet-up and blame it on an accident or tragedy in their family and ask for some financial support.
“They will request a bank transfer, or they will request an iTunes card, a google play gift card … Most of them ask for a bank transfer.”
Falling victim to such scams also poses a few potential legal issues, too. A report from ACCC has shown some victims have become entangled in money laundering schemes or even drug running when asked to collect a package.
If you are heart broken and wallet broken, after all that you don’t want to go through a legal challenge,” Dr Barkat ullah said.
“We like to meet someone new or really attractive, someone might be looking for a prince to kiss, but it might be a frog,” he said.
“A bit of research will save the community from a lot of emotional and financial heartbreak.
“Save your heart and wallet.”
Dr Barkat ullah’s top e-romance scam tips:
- Check the warning signs; just as if you see an Apple iPhone Pro selling for $200 it’s too cheap to believe, if someone’s profile is too good to be true, just double check
- If you are unsure someone is using an original photo on their dating profile, use Google’s reverse image search function to see if it appears elsewhere online
- Before meeting someone or entering a relationship, talk it over with friends and family
- Take note of their English, be suspicious if it is poor but they claim to be a native speaker
- Do not rush; these people will be trying to rush, their emotions will change very quickly, we need to take things slowly
- If they want to meet physically, to stay safe meet in public where there are a lot of people around and let people know where you’re going
- If you have lost money to an online scammer, are being blackmailed, have had your identity stolen or are in physical danger, report your concerns to the relevant authorities, such as Scamwatch, your local police or ID care.
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