Romance Scamming Has Become Big Business In The Pandemic

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Online scams built around romance are stealing tens of millions of dollars from Australians every year.  

It’s a really widespread form of online scamming that’s financially and emotionally devastating and like most things, Covid has made it worse.  

What Do We Need To Know About Romantic Online Scams?

Romance scams can sound a little bit silly on the surface but they’re a pretty huge criminal industry.  

Back in 2019 Australians lost about 28.6 million dollars to scammers, and that number has grown even more during the pandemic because of all the time people are spending online.  

On average victims are losing about 19,000 dollars each, but there are heaps of accounts of people losing hundreds of thousands.  

Those numbers are really just the tip of the iceberg because they only show the scams we know about. Heaps of these crimes are basically just going unreported.  

So How Are People Actually Being Scammed?  

Well, it usually starts on dating websites.  

Women – especially older, single women – are the ones being targeted when they set up accounts on places like RSVP or Tinder 

But it can happen to anyone, and it can happen on apps where people would just not expect it to, like on Words With Friends.   

Basically scammers will forge these fake identities and then romantically pursue women who they eventually coerce into giving them money.   

Dr Natalie Gately (Edith Cowan University): “Sometimes they’ll wait until about 8 months before they’ll ever ask for any money  And by then – 8 months into a relationship – you’ve built the trust; you’ve built the intimacyYou don’t just start up a relationship and ask for money. This is the trick with these clever scammers.” 

These scammers evade the security of a website by taking conversations onto Messenger or email, and then they set up women to believe that they’re in a secure relationship.  

Natalie told me that they’re really good at spinning stories about why they can’t meet up in person and making the scam-ees feel trusting.  

The Long Play 

Everyone’s seen Catfish, we know how this works.  

NG: “It’s quite flattering for a person looking for a relationship. When you get home, they’re online waiting for you; you gradually maybe isolate yourself from some friends and family because you’re waiting to get home and talk to this person or you’re texting while you’re at work and it’s quite intimate.” 

Scammers use those relationships to eventually get a shitload of money transferred to them.  

But they also set people up to launder cash for them, so people who just wanted a date can end up unknowingly participating in a crime.  

Besides the legal aspects, Natalie told me that the process of figuring out what’s happening can be totally traumatic to people who genuinely thought they were in a longterm relationship.  

NG: “This is being described by victims as being akin to a death. The person that they trusted – they were intimate with, they’ve shared their secrets with, they thought they were in a relationship with for 8 months, 12 months, whatever the deal may be – is now gone. The psychological damage is immense.” 

It’s unsurprising that a lot of people would choose to just not report it.  

What Can The Cops Do About These Online Scams?  

Well, it’s really complicated.  

Romance scammers have been prosecuted in the past, like last year when the members of a cyber scam ring worth about 6 million dollars were arrested 

But a lot of these scammers are kind of just getting away with it 

They’re operating from different countries so even if Australian police have figured out who a scammer is overseas, it’s a massive, expensive process trying to charge them and get them extradited.  

Natalie told me that right now, governments are kind of just playing catch up with the laws around this.  

NG: “Legislation takes time to go through everything that it needs to do. You’ve then got to have global legislation that allows information sharing and the technology keeps moving quicker than the legislation goes through.” 

The Takeaway 

Romance scams are big business and they’re on the rise.  

It’s something we should be aware of in our own online relationships but it’s honestly something that older people on apps really just need to be on high alert for.  

Because as much as there has been a big police and research response to this, it still seems largely like something people can just get away with, and it leaves victims with a huge amount of damage.