These days, meeting a romantic partner on an app or online is very common. Unfortunately, not everyone we come across on the internet has our best interests at heart. Australians of all age groups are falling for romance or relationship scams and being tricked into handing over money or assets.
Ahead of Valentine’s Day, we check in with a Bank Australia fraud expert to give us some insight on the common red flags when it comes to romance scams, plus some practical tips on how to avoid them.
How to spot a romance scam?
You might have heard the term ‘catfishing’ – this is when a person sets up a fake online identity to trick others. They often steal photos and information belonging to other people, and use these to set up fake social media profiles. The intention of a catfisher is to build up a false relationship or friendship with an individual and then either scam them out of money or harm them.
Romance scams are a form of catfishing, and the eSafety Commissioner has lots of tips about how to protect yourself against them, and what to do if you think you’ve been targeted.
Romance or relationship scams can take on various forms but there are a few things that they usually all have in common – here are some of them.
Romance or relationship scams start off very similarly to other common banking frauds – a stranger approaches you online. “It’s essentially like phone phishing,” says Bank Australia senior analyst Tara Potts. “A stranger will reach out via an app – usually Facebook, Instagram or What’s App – and strike up a conversation.”
From there, the scammer will gradually build trust and form a relationship with an individual, which will quickly develop into a “romantic” connection. “While much less common, sometimes these scams do take the form of friendship connections, so that is worth keeping in mind too,” says Tara.
They take time
“Romance scams are one of the harder ones for people to spot,” says Tara, “because the scammers usually take their time building trust with an individual before asking them for money.” This means that often the target has been messaging or talking to a scammer on the phone for months before being asked for money.
Asking for money
Once a connection has been established, the scammer will start asking for money. The reasons for this can be varied: sometimes it may be framed as cash to cover an urgent bill, unexpected fees on a new house purchase, or money for a plane ticket. “Unlike other scams, usually the scammer will only ask for small amounts to maintain an ongoing income and not attract undue attention from a financial institution,” says Tara.
Who is targeted?
Surprisingly, there is no one age bracket that is targeted more than others. Everyone is vulnerable. “We see everyone from 20 year-olds to 70 year-olds being targeted,” says Tara. “Although there is a rising prevalence in young people falling for these scams, perhaps from naturally spending more time online.”
Romance scam red flags
While romance scams can be tricky to spot, there are a number of things that should stand out as red flags. “There's nothing wrong with meeting someone online,” says Tara, “but just be cautious and vigilant.”
Dodgy looking social profiles
“Someone asking for money is the biggest red flag, but the first thing to look out for is a person’s online presence,” says Tara. So, if someone adds you on Facebook or Instagram, study their profile to see how legitimate it looks. “Most of the time a scammer won’t have an extensive friends list, many photos or really any other personal information on their profile.” Google them to see what comes up, too.
Love bombing is the act of showering someone with extreme displays of affection with intent to manipulate, and usually scammers will ramp up a new connection from casual online chatting to declarations of love very fast. “They'll probably be over the top from fairly early on,” says Tara, “and then escalate the conversation from there.”
Scammers and catfishers might resist meeting in person or even speaking on the phone. It might feel like they always have a reason not to meet or speak. If you realise after a period of time that you also haven’t met or spoken to anyone else in that person’s life, this can be a red flag for a scam.
Urgency and emergency
It may take a few months for a scammer to ask for money, but once they do, the request usually comes with a sense of urgency. More often than not, the person will have set up the scam to make it appear that they live in another country, which means they may ask for money to book a flight to come and visit.
“Often the scammers will be even more manipulative,” adds Tara. “For example, they might set it up like they are coming to visit and then call urgently from the airport in need of money to pay customs or a fine before they can board the plane.” This sense of urgency is very common.
Other examples of demands Tara has seen are requests for rent money on threat of eviction, or a story about being in some kind of imminent danger that requires funds to resolve it. “The demand for the money and the sense of urgency can become quite elevated.”
A scammer could provide a bank account in a different name to the one they have given the victim. “Sometimes they say it’s their lawyer's account, especially if they are using the customs trick,” says Tara. And sometimes they will provide an individual with Australian bank details, despite claiming to be overseas.
“Unfortunately, often people still don’t realise they’ve been scammed until the scammer suddenly cuts all contact,” explains Tara. Usually, once the scammers suspect they’ve extracted as much money as possible, they will shut down all contact and close social media accounts.
How to avoid a romance scam
“The number one thing I say to customers is not to transfer money to someone that you haven’t met in person,” says Tara. And if you are at all suspicious, or are questioning someone's actions, contact Bank Australia immediately and the fraud team can investigate for you.
How to protect yourself against scammers
It sometimes feels like scammers are everywhere, but Bank Australia has a few steadfast tips to avoid falling for most of the common scams around. These include:
- Never give out your personal identification details.
- Never share your one-time passwords.
- Call the person/company to verify.
- If you’re unsure, hang up.
- Educate yourself and those around you.
Check out more useful tips to protect yourself against scams.