How online criminal networks defraud lonely people with false promises of romance and love.
It took Jan Marshall a couple of days to realise that she’d been duped by a man she loved but had never met.
When the awful reality hit her, what left her reeling wasn’t just that she’d lost every dollar she had to a fraudster. It wasn’t even that her whole imagined future of love and companionship had been ripped away. It was the question to which she had no answer: How could I have let this happen to me?
Like just over 3000 Australian men and women last year alone, Jan had fallen victim to a highly sophisticated romance scam. She lost her entire life savings and all her superannuation. And, as she realised in the days and weeks that followed, there was virtually nothing she could do about it.
“I found that there is a great deal of victim blaming that goes on in our society. People wonder how you could be so stupid. But you are the victim of professional fraudsters,” she says.
A successful 59-year-old IT consultant, Jan had recently moved back from Brisbane to her native Melbourne for work and to be closer to her family. She knew that Victoria was a wonderful place to visit and she wanted someone like-minded to explore with. “I have spent a large part of my life alone,” she points out. “I wasn’t necessarily feeling lonely or unhappy – it wasn’t loneliness that made me susceptible.”
Like all of us, Jan had heard stories of people forming lasting relationships online, so she decided to give it a go. She set up her profile on the dating site Plenty of Fish and within a couple of days was contacted by a handsome, grey-haired English engineer named Eamon.
He wasn’t ideal – for a start, he was living in the US, travelled for work and had a 15-year-old daughter being cared for by a nanny in England. Hardly the local friend she’d been looking for. But none of the other men she’d contacted were responding, and she figured it would be good practice to answer Eamon’s emails.
Over the next few days, he started to send Jan long lists of questions. “What’s your favourite food? What music do you like? Have you ever been to England?” It seemed innocuous enough. Jan responded seriously and at length. “How else do you get to know somebody?” she thought.
They seemed to hit it off straight away. It was uncanny how he shared the same interests and knew just the right questions to ask. Very quickly, he urged her to continue their communication outside the dating site and removed his profile. “I’m only going to be talking to you now,” he told her. With hindsight, Jan realised this is a common tactic to reduce the scammer’s visibility.
Eamon told her he was returning to England for work and asked her to call him. She paid for the call (and for the hundreds that followed). His accent had a pleasing lilt. He was dual- heritage, he told her, with an Irish father and a Russian mother. They started to talk more frequently. Sometimes when Jan asked him a question he’d make an excuse – he had to take his daughter somewhere or go to a meeting. By the time they spoke again later, he’d researched the right answer.
Over time, they attempted to communicate face-to-face. But there was always something wrong with Eamon’s technology and, as hard as he tried to get it working, he could see her, but apart from an initial two-second video, Jan never saw a picture of her scammer.
Still, the conversation was electric. He was intelligent and well-educated, wealthy and with a good job. He told Jan that all he wanted was to settle down and be with one person – and he’d travel anywhere in the world for the right one. Over the weeks, he expressed his interest in Jan more and more forcefully. “I only want to talk to you, I think you are special, I just want to be there when you come home from work and share my life with you.”
With incredible skill, Eamon built the dream. Jan started to be swept along in the romantic journey. He seemed to be everything she could have ever wanted in a partner, and at no point did it seem too good to be true. Despite her common sense, Jan was in a delicious love bubble, buoyed by the constant affirmations that she was special and wanted. “I had never heard that stuff before, from anyone,” she says.
Their intense conversations would start in the early evening and they would talk through the night, by phone, Skype or instant messaging. In the morning, Jan would leave for work and continue texting on the train. She was thinking about Eamon all the time, re-reading his messages and printing out his photos to put up around her house.
Her friends and mother were worried, but she chose to ignore them. She thought long and hard about whether it could be a scam, but it seemed to be too real, too intimate. “I consciously made the decision to go with my love,” she says.
Five weeks after they’d met, Eamon sent her a text message that made her heart leap. “If you were a woman who was loved by a man and he asked you to marry him, what would you say?”
“I’d say yes,” she texted back. That night, on their still one-sided Skype conversation, they consummated their relationship with cybersex.
He’d got her.
A few days later, Eamon announced he was going to Dubai for a six-to eight-week contract to do maintenance on an oil pipeline. He had his daughter with him but she had lost his laptop on the way. Once he’d arrived, he messaged Jan to say he hadn’t realised he’d need to pay tax in Dubai for the contract. He had more than enough money in his bank account in England, but he couldn’t access it.
Jan was usually sensible and careful with money. She’d built up a substantial nest egg and had always taken good care of her financial affairs. So it was completely out of character when she transferred $33,000 to pay Eamon’s tax. Her bank said nothing and she was comforted when she checked out the receiving bank – it was legitimate – and when he sent her a copy of his English bank statement to prove he could pay her back with interest.
Not long afterwards, he messaged her again to tell her he had miscalculated the amount of materials he needed for the pipeline. Then, a few days later, again to say he was being threatened because he hadn’t paid the second half of the tax.
The sense of urgency built gradually over the next few weeks. Eamon used every ruse to manipulate Jan’s emotions so she would pay more. He was hurt, threatened, scared. His ‘daughter’ called Jan to say there were men in the apartment abusing her father and she was worried. At other times he’d sob in gratitude that she was helping him.
Jan sent more and more money, two large payments through her bank, but the majority through Western Union at the post office or MoneyGram. One time, after she’d transferred $40,000 into his bank account, he called to say he’d been robbed on the way to pay it. She was so worried for his safety that she paid the same amount again.
She still doesn’t really have an explanation for why she paid, but at the time it seemed normal. “This was my life partner. My money was his money,” she says.
Eamon consistently told her he just needed to get back to England and he would repay her. Then he said he’d had a car crash in which his driver was killed. He wanted to get out of the contract but he couldn’t contact the right people because they were all at a funeral. If Jan told him she didn’t have any more money, he’d get so upset that she’d finally give in.
By the time Eamon was finally out of hospital and heading to the airport to fly back to England, Jan had sent him more than $260,000. She’d emptied her savings account and self-managed superannuation fund – all the money she’d set up for her future. She’d even given him her last pay.
His last text was sent as he was boarding the plane. “I love you so much, thanks for everything.” She waited a couple of days for him to arrive home and send her the money back. He never contacted her again.
For the first few weeks, Jan was in shock. She couldn’t even afford food until her next pay arrived. The first thing she did was to accept she’d been scammed and face it head on. She called her mother and the girlfriends who had warned her. Yet despite everything, she was still in love. If he had turned up on her doorstep, she would have welcomed him with open arms.
She went to the police, who took the details and sent them to Western Union. They believed the money had ended up in Nigeria, but there was no way of getting it back. Jan’s bank also contacted her after it had received a query from the bank in Dubai, which was suspicious that money laundering could be involved. She told them she was the victim of a romance scam and they tried several times to retrieve her money, but to no avail.
Jan also informed the Australian Taxation Office that she had emptied her super fund. They closed it down – and taxed her at 46.7 per cent, costing her a further $76,000. Even with legal help to mount an objection, she had no recourse. “They fined me for being caught in a scam,” she says.
Jan still couldn’t understand how it could have happened to her. She wrote down a meticulous chronology, trying to work out at what point she’d been hooked. Before the scam she’d always acted rationally, and straight afterwards she acted rationally, too. But during those few weeks, she came to the conclusion that she hadn’t been in control. The scammer was controlling her.
Over the next year Jan battled depression. She’d lost all sense of her own value. But then, she decided to survive. She started to research romance scams, and found the same story happening time and again. She realised it wasn’t personal – it was a crime.
Jan also chose to pull herself out of her state of shame, by speaking publicly about her experiences, launching a blog and setting up a support group. By owning up to her mistake, it could no longer eat away at her.
“I am turning what has been a devastating time into a time to find an exciting new career in writing and speaking,” she says. “I have moved from being a victim of an online dating fraud to being a survivor.”
What you can do
There’s little recourse for victims of romance scams. Money sent to romance scammers is almost always impossible to recover, and police don’t have the ability to investigate most cases.
Pete Steel, Executive General Manager Digital at the Commonwealth Bank, says the bank offers customers a 100 per cent guarantee against fraud where they are not at fault. For example, it will fully reimburse customers who notice a fraudulent transaction on their bank statement.
But if you willingly transfer money to someone you don’t know, even if you are the victim of a scam, there’s little the bank can do.
“We invest in state-of-the-art fraud prevention and detection technology and have a dedicated team who actively monitor unusual or suspicious activity. Another way we try to keep ahead of the curve is working closely with law enforcement agencies and other banks to share information and understand potential threats,” Steel says.
“However, customers need to remain vigilant, protect their banking details and be smart about who they send money to.”
There’s very little legal recourse for victims of romance scams, either. Crimes can be reported to your local police and to Scamwatch at www.scamwatch.gov.au/report-a-scam. The Australian Cybercrime Online Reporting Network (ACORN) automatically refers suitable reports to law enforcement agencies.
But whether a case is followed up depends on a number of factors, including the type of incident, where the suspect is located, and whether the report contains sufficient information about the offence.
According to Dr Cross, supporting victims to recover is vital. “They may need medical assistance to improve their physical and psychological wellbeing, counselling to repair relationships with family, and financial counselling to assist with their financial losses,” she says.
“At present victim support schemes do not apply to non-violent victims of crime, which means they are not acknowledged as victims and not eligible to gain financial assistance for recovery. We need to [revise] victim support schemes to be based on notions of harm rather than an arbitrary offence type.”
How romance scams work
Australians lost more than $17 million to romance scammers in 2017 alone. How can so many people believe a dream that all others see as obviously false?
“Offenders are very good at identifying a weakness or vulnerability in a person. They use a variety of grooming techniques and tactics of power, control and persuasion that manipulate victims into doing things they wouldn’t normally do,” explains Dr Cassandra Cross, Senior Lecturer in the School of Justice at the Queensland University of Technology.
Most romance scams start through dating sites, although social media, particularly Facebook, is growing in popularity, says Delia Rickard, Deputy Chair of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC). “Scammers usually have a good understanding of who this person is through looking at what they like and don’t like. They are highly skilled at manipulating their victims’ emotions.”
The scammers ‘love bomb’ their victims with loving words, poems and gifts to gain their trust, following much-tested scripts that have been proven to work. They’ll isolate victims from their friends and family, and message them through the night so they are sleep-deprived.
“These people make a lot of effort to groom their victims,” says Rickard. “They’ll be incredibly thoughtful and create a dream universe just for the two of you. Then they will eventually ask for money. They all lead to money.”
Scammers might ask directly for gifts, or for your bank account details. They may need money to visit you or to escape from some sort of emergency, or they may ask you to transfer money for them in a money-laundering scam. They may even try to lure you overseas to meet them, putting you at great personal risk. Others may record intimate videos of you, which they will then use for blackmail.
Whatever their methods, scammers are part of international criminal networks that are causing significant emotional and financial harm to the community.