According to NAB, reports of romance scams have been increasing year-on-year, up 29% in 2023.
“These scams can have a devastating impact – both financial and emotional – and we see people of all ages, genders and demographics targeted,” NAB security awareness manager Laura Hartley said.
Reports of the same cons from Bank of Queensland (BOQ) customers also jumped 50% in the same period.
Data from the ACCC's Scamwatch showed Australians lost more than $40 million to romance scams in 2022. Men who fell to these cons lost $13.5 million, while women lost double the amount at $27 million.
“Romance and friendship scams re-enforce the need for a coordinated, national approach to the scam epidemic, given many start on dating apps, social media platforms or messaging apps,” Ms Hartley added.
Romance scams, often targeting individuals seeking companionship, are one of the top three digital scam types that impact CommBank customers in terms of dollars lost.
“Scammers are the most opportunistic type of criminals and will take advantage of people looking for romantic relationships around Valentine’s Day,” said James Roberts, general manager of Fraud and Scams Strategy and Governance at CommBank.
Australian Banking Association CEO Anna Bligh, added, “These digital Romeos and Juliets have highly sophisticated teams behind them, crafting captivating online profiles and showering potential victims with compliments and promises of forever.”
Who are the targets?
People aged 55-64 are the most vulnerable to this type of con, with more than 400 incidents reported, according to BOQ.
Similarly, ANZ customers aged 51-80 accounted for the most number of reported scams to the bank. Younger ones are not spared though, as 470 fell victim to these cons in 2023.
While women lose more in dollar values – about $23 million – to romance scams, men make up the majority of reports at 1,984, Scamwatch found.
“There are many different scam types but they all manipulate normal human emotions and desires to extract money from victims,” ANZ scams portfolio lead Ruth Talalla said.
How it begins: Starting as a ‘friend’
According to Mr Roberts, romance scams often start as a friend request on Facebook, a WhatsApp message from an unknown number, or a message on a dating app.
The scammer, ANZ said, will then share tales about their life, to form an inauthentic relationship with their target. They will often shower their targets with compliments and try to build an emotional connection before attempting to exploit that connection for money.
This is sometimes referred to as ‘love bombing’ where the scammer is in contact with the victim several times a day professing their feelings for them.
How the scam works
They often use pressure or persuasion to coax their victims to send money.
According to the National Anti-Scam Centre, after developing a close relationship, the scammer will begin to talk about making money through different investments, most commonly involving cryptocurrency.
They will then encourage their targets to ‘invest’ or pressure them into transferring a small amount of money to see how easy it is. It will appear that the victim is making a profit, so they will be encouraged to ‘top up their account’.
The scam ends when the victim has no more money to give or refuses to keep investing. At this point, the scammer may either disappear and stop all contact with the victim or may demand that the victim invest more money to access the money already invested.
On the other hand, some criminals extort their victims who send them compromising sexual images. These scammers demand payment in exchange for not sharing the images.
How to spot a scam: Common red flags
Experts urge Aussies to watch out for some of the warning signs that signal a friendship or a relationship is nothing more than a scam. The ABA has identified these red flags:
- Too good to be true social media profiles with limited information or inconsistent details
- Rapid declarations of love within days or weeks of meeting (usually online)
- Moving the conversation to a new platform (i.e. from a dating app onto a messaging app)
- Reluctance to video chat or meet in person
- Urgent financial requests, often accompanied by emotional stories, promising returns, or tight deadlines (“now or never”).
- Pressure to use unconventional payment methods such as cryptocurrency, gift cards, and money transfers
- Encourage secrecy about the relationship to isolate the target from their family and friends, and build trust with the scammer
How to avoid scams: Stop, think, protect
“The more aware customers are of potential scams, the better placed they are to spot the red flags and protect themselves and their loved ones this Valentine’s Day,” Ms Talalla said.
Scamwatch urges the public to ‘stop’ and don’t give any personal information or act on a piece of investment advice from someone they have only met online.
It’s also vital to ‘think’ and check if the person is who they say they are. “Ask yourself if you really know who you are communicating with, as scammers can use different profile pictures and lie about who they really are”.
Finally, the public is urged to ‘protect’ themselves and others if something feels wrong by contacting their banks and reporting scams to Scamwatch.
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash