'She was the bait': When online dating turns into a nightmare

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‘Sextortion’ cases are on the rise in Australia, but a new redress scheme could help some victims get their money back.

'Wilson' won’t forget the moment a brief window of pleasure turned into a nightmare.

He’d met a young woman on a dating app, and she seemed to really like him.

“The whole time, I thought she was just interested in meeting up,” he told SBS News. 

The 25-year-old Sydney tradesman doesn’t want to use his real name, because what happened next, he said, threatened to derail his life.

After meeting on mobile flirting app Skout, the woman asked to connect on Skype, and Facebook, too.

Once they were video chatting, he claimed the woman started to strip and then asked Wilson to return the favour.

“She was like, 'can I see you?' You know, can you reveal yourself? Then… I showed everything, like, my private parts.”

Almost instantly, the chat turned hostile. He claimed the woman belonged to a network of scammers, and she wasn’t alone in the room.

“She was the bait,” Wilson said. “She just moved aside, and I didn’t see the guy’s face, but he was telling me, ‘We recorded you, and if you don’t do what I tell you to do, you’re going to get the video sent to your family, and we’re going to ruin your life.’”

Fearing the reaction from his friends and family, who are conservative Muslims, Wilson agreed to send them $650.

The scammers allegedly gave him strict instructions for the transaction, conducted via global money sharing network Western Union.

Even then, the ordeal wasn’t over.

“That was a relief, and the next thing, they show me these pictures. They say, the deal was to delete the video, but we still have pictures.”

“I went to the police to ask what they could do, can they help me out? All they could do is file a report.”

David Lacey of the National Identity and Cyber Support Service IDCARE said it can be hard to prosecute scammers in cases like this, because it often falls into the realm of cross border crime.

“The degree of difficulty jumps enormously when the perpetrator’s overseas,” he said

Mr Lacey said online scamming is becoming increasingly sophisticated.

“It’s our view, and certainly hearing from the coalface of people who are impacted, it is organised crime.”

Sextortion on the rise 

Delia Rickard, deputy chair of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, said the type of scam Wilson experienced, typically called ‘sextortion’, is becoming increasingly common.

“Sextortion is on the rise, and we’re seeing it both with young men and older men, and with women as well.”

The ACCC is working closely with companies whose products are used by scamming networks to help confront the problem.

She said social media companies, banks and money wire services all need to be alert and proactive.

But there is some good news for victims of any kind of scam who have sent money via Western Union.

Last year, the United States Department of Justice took the money transfer service to court, and won a $500 million settlement to pay redress to those who have been scammed.

Australians who lost money to a scammer via a payment to Western Union between January 2004 and January 2017 may be able to get their money back, but will have to apply before the end of May 2018. Click here to find out how.

Delia Rickard from the ACCC said anyone connecting with strangers online should be aware of the risks.

“The best advice I can give, and I’m sorry to sound like a prude: Do not share intimate photos and video with people you’ve met online and don’t know," she said. 

Wilson said people should also be aware of sharing too much personal information unwittingly.

“My advice is, if you are on a dating app, don’t add them on another social media [site], Facebook or Skype or anything,” he said. “That way, they can’t do what they’re going to do to you.”

- Wilson is not his real name. 

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