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Online romance scams victimise non-English speakers, cause heartbreak, financial fraud

Source: Getty Images/fizkes

Latest data suggests COVID has offered perfect conditions for scammers to con people looking for love online. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has reported nearly 2,000 online dating scams amounting to losses over $28 million between January and July this year.

Online romance or dating scams, also known as ‘catfishing’, exploit the emotions of victims, and often defraud them financially or commit identity theft. During the ongoing pandemic, which has led to social isolation and loneliness, more and more people were now hooking up online.

The ACCC noted that one of the key trends emerging in this atmosphere is “romance baiting”.


Highlights:

  • Australia notes surge in online dating scams, also known as catfishing, during pandemic
  • Over 1,900 online dating scams, losses over $28 m reported during Jan-July this year: ACCC
  • Many victims from non-English speaking backgrounds, possibly of Indian-origin

What's catfishing?

Explaining the rising trend in online scams, Dr Ritesh Chugh, a socio-technological expert from CQ University, said, “an increased online presence due to working from home during COVID-19, has created more cyber fraud opportunities for online scamsters".

“Catfishing is pretending to be someone else by using a real person’s identity and creating a fake online profile, with the intent of luring people into false dating and romantic relationships.

Beware, a catfisher is not Cupid

"The fake profiles are usually created on social media sites and dating apps using images of real people,” Dr Chugh told SBS Hindi.

Dr Chugh added that it wasn’t the lack of human connections and love which were responsible for the rising trend but rather the lack of technological knowhow is helping scammers con people.

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Dr Ritesh Chugh, a socio-technological expert from CQUniversity, warns against oversharing of personal information online.
Supplied by Ritesh Chugh

A Brisbane-based woman of Indian origin, Ms A, has been on dating websites for almost two years. Luckily, she has never been scammed. 

“I have been very careful to check all red flags when chatting on these sites, like whether a phone number is genuine or not, a legitimate social profile, and I also never give away bank details,” the 35-year-old told SBS Hindi on the condition of anonymity.

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Social media is the most common way that romance scammers find their victims.
AAP Image/EPA/SASCHA STEINBACH

Contrary to Ms A’s experience, online romance scams have caused the highest losses to females in 2020, with $28.1 million lost and reported to Scamwatch.

Scamwatch is a website run by ACCC that offers information to consumers and small businesses on how to recognise, avoid and report scams.

ACCC on catfishing

According to ACCC data, people aged between 25 and 34 lost most money amounting to $7.3 million to romance baiting in 2020. 

Responding to a query on catfishing from SBS Hindi, an ACCC spokesperson said, “this is a combination of a dating and romance scam with an investment scam. The scammer initially contacts a victim via a dating app, then quickly moves the conversation to an encrypted chat site like Whatsapp”.

After a few weeks of developing a relationship, the scammer will begin asking about the victim’s finances and encourage them to participate in an investment opportunity, often involving cryptocurrency

"They will offer to show their victim how to invest and the victim will typically see a quick return,” the spokesperson added.

Where's the money, honey?

The spokesperson said that it had received 356 reports against dating and romance scams, with reported losses of $5,569,619. The victims stated that they were from a non-English speaking background.

An aggregate amount of the losses incurred in dating and romance scams in 2019 stood at $28,606,215. This touched $38,916,120 in 2020, thereby registering an increase of 36 per cent, as reported to Scamwatch.

The spokesperson didn’t rule out the presence of people of Indian origin amongst the victims.

We think it is reasonable to assume that some members of the Indian community may have been targeted in these scams

The spokesperson clarified that the ACCC’s Scamwatch website does not collect data about the ethnicity or heritage of those reporting scams.

“Between 1 January and 31 July 2021, we have had $28,117,916 in losses reported to Scamwatch, so it is likely that overall losses to dating and romance scams in 2021 will be higher than in 2020,” the spokesperson added.

“We note that we haven’t necessarily seen a huge increase in the number of reports overall – in 2019 we received 3,948 reports overall whereas in 2020 we received 3,708 reports. This indicates that when people are losing money to these scams, they are losing more of it,” the spokesperson elaborated. 

How to bell the cat

Giving tips to how to avoid being scammed, Dr Chugh warned against oversharing of personal information online apart from signing up for Google alerts, which notifies whenever your name appears on the internet, and to do a Google reverse image search to check if a profile photo appears elsewhere.

Look out for red flags such as the impersonator asking for money, intimate photos or videos, deceptive talk, vague answers and refusing to meet face-to-face

“Try video chatting with the person to see if it’s the real persona. If it is a fake persona, all attempts to video chat will usually be unsuccessful. Also, ask for selfies because impersonators won’t necessarily have access to selfies of the real persona,” he added.

“Exercise some caution, be vigilant, and when in doubt, don’t be shy to ask for help. If you have been catfished, block all contact with the predatory persona and immediately report to Scamwatch,’’ Dr Chugh said.

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