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$4.5 million heartbreaking fraud losses

Heartbreaking fraud losses

Breaking hearts and bank balances – organised criminals have defrauded West Australians out of at least $4.5million after starting relationships with victims online, according to figures compiled over the six months since August 2012.

Relationship fraud losses totalling about $568,000 were reported to Consumer Protection’s WA ScamNet between August 2012 and January 2013. However, this proved to be the tip of the iceberg when combined with statistics generated by the WA Police Major Fraud Squad initiative ‘Operation Sunbird’.

Dom Blackshaw from the WA Police Major Fraud Squad said Operation Sunbird has shown the true extent to which money is being transferred to fraudsters in African countries such as Nigeria, Ghana and Sierra Leone.

“Legitimate business or personal transactions were discounted and the result was a figure of more than $3.95million sent to scammers posing as love interests or offering investment opportunities. In the frauds identified some individuals have sent up to $300,000,” he said.

“After identifying hundreds of vulnerable individuals repeatedly sending large amounts of money, we began the painstaking task of sending letters to try to alert them to the fact they are being duped. A follow-up visit to dozens of victims has also been a major part of the project.”

Commissioner for Consumer Protection Anne Driscoll said the scale of the work involved showed the need for collaboration:

“Relationship fraud victims find it extremely difficult to accept that the person they have been conversing with, over email and phone for months or sometimes even years, is a con artist. It is useful for them to be able to speak to both WA Police and WA ScamNet as it reinforces the message and offers support from two agencies.

“This is a sophisticated system of fraud and those targeted are victims of crime. If someone broke into a home and stole $100,000 the community would be aghast; what we see here is a criminal activity that fleeces innocent good-hearted people out of their life savings.

“If you or someone you know has begun a relationship with a person overseas after meeting on an internet dating or social networking website, and that person requests money, it will likely be a fraud. Don’t be fooled by claims that the cash is needed to help out in an emergency situation or to pay for an airfare to come to WA.”

Increasingly Consumer Protection and WA Police are finding that once a victim tells the fraudster that the game is up, they are in a danger zone where they will be targeted by a secondary scam. Bogus stories have included:

  • offers of scam compensation from law enforcement or government agencies even though no such scheme exists
  • a supposed doctor calling to alert a fraud victim that the scammer had attempted suicide and needed medical bills paying or he would not survive;
  • a woman contacting a fraud victim to explain she is the scammer’s wife and he beats her but she wants to leave and needs money to do so; and
  • claims made to a fraud victim that the scammer is facing jail unless more money is sent.

WA ScamNet’s top tips to avoid relationship fraud:

  • Do not respond to out-of-the-blue social media messages from strangers requesting romance, such as a friend request on Facebook.
  • Be on your guard if someone you meet on an online dating site asks you to take the conversation over to email or instant messaging.
  • Be wary of overseas-based singles especially if they confess their love for you after a short amount of time or want to know about your financial status.
  • Remember that just because someone shares personal photos does not mean the pictures are of them – scammers often steal other people’s photos.
  • Don’t be fooled into thinking that talking to somebody on the phone means you know them and that they are who they say there are.
  • Be concerned if a person refuses to chat real-time via a webcam and be mindful that even Skype is not scammer proof – watch out for pre-recorded videos.
  • Alarm bells should ring if someone you do not know personally (have met face-to-face) requests money, particularly by a wire transfer service such as Western Union or even direct bank transfers, which could be going to an account set up with a stolen identity.

The WA Police website now has a dedicated scams/fraud section.

WA ScamNet has more information about Operation Sunbird and advice for scam/fraud victims