Unhappy Valentine: organised crime runs romance cons

Love scams robbing us blind

A Western Victorian woman who lost $400,000 to a love con travelled overseas three times in the hope of meeting her fake fiance.

Her leap of faith put her in extreme danger, according to the consumer watchdog.

Australians have been killed or used as drug mules and spent years in overseas prisons after being groomed by romance scammers.

Last year Australians lost $25.5 million to love scams – $3 million more than before.

These aren’t garden variety cons – many have ties to international organised crime, and involve multiple people working on any number of victims at the one time, Australian Competition and Consumer Commission deputy chair Delia Rickard said.

The man who tells you he’s never fallen for anyone like you before might be replaced on a sick day by another phone operator, reading off a script, she said. 

I have met so many really intelligent people who have been victims of romance scams. The scammers are very professional, they are very slick, they imitate legal documents all the time, they do documents that look like they’ve got state seals on them. This is big business, this is organised crime.

Australian Competition and Consumer Commission deputy chair Delia Rickard

Listen to Annette’s story here:

Losing everything for love

Annette had been talking to a scammer for about a month when his lawyer called her, claiming her supposed partner had had a serious accident at work and needed money. Picture: Joe Armao.

Annette had been talking to a scammer for about a month when his lawyer called her, claiming her supposed partner had had a serious accident at work and needed money. Picture: Joe Armao.

They come after you because they know your emotions are all over the place, they seem to know what to say to you and how to build your trust but it’s just all lies, everything is a lie that they’re going to tell you.

Annette, love scam victim

Annette, who asked we not identify her by her real name, had recently lost her husband when she began talking to an Australian ex pat online.

The man called himself Colin Gilbert and told her he too was widowed, and had raised his son by himself.

It was a month of constant emails and texts before Colin asked her for money, through another scammer posing as his lawyer. 

The lawyer told Annette that Colin had injured himself at work and was struggling to pay for food.

Initially, she sent through $7000, then about $20,000. 

Within 18 months, the scammers had extorted $400,000.

Annette routinely tried to interrogate the truth of her fiance’s claims. 

Each time she was fobbed off with elaborate excuses, presented with false documents – and in one case a suitcase supposedly filled with $1 million US dollars. 

“My husband had passed away, I was grieving, I was very lonely,” she said. 

“They come after you because they know your emotions are all over the place, they seem to know what to say to you and how to build your trust but it’s just all lies, everything is a lie that they’re going to tell you.”

Colin drew on Annette’s profile, and then stories she shared about her own life, to build her trust.

The scammers also gleaned enough information to get a profile of Annette’s finances.

“They’d play the same game on you as to what you’re going through,” she said.

“They’d lost their partner several years earlier, he supposedly reared his child to be a teenager on his own because he couldn’t trust anyone so you felt this empathy for them.”

After the first lump sum, Colin asked Annette to marry him.

“He was building me up, making me feel good about myself when everyone else was putting me down,” she said.

“I’m thinking this person really cares about me, I’ve helped him and he wants to spend the rest of his life with me. 

It was like I was on my own dealing with everything and all I had was this lifeline. He knew that, and he used that on me, and along with the band of them, they totally manipulated me all the way through.

Annette, love scam victim

“It was like I was on my own dealing with everything and all I had was this lifeline.

“He knew that, and he used that on me, and along with the band of them, they totally manipulated me all the way through.”

Eventually, after Colin’s lawyer asked for a further $120,000, Annette flew to Amsterdam to meet Colin and test his claims for herself. 

Her family tried to stop her, telling her it was definitely a con.

“I interrogated him (Colin) big time on the phone, he pretended to be totally innocent, ‘your family is setting me up, they don’t want us together can’t you see this’.

“He was trying to put doubt in any way possible in my head that my family were setting it up.”

She went anyway – taking a cheque for $60,000 as well as $30,000 in cash. 

Several times she was detained by customs and questioned about the large sum of money she was carrying.

Colin didn’t show. 

Instead Annette was picked by his associates and taken to a warehouse where they showed her a case supposedly containing $1 million in US dollars. 

But to release the money, they told her they needed more cash.

He was trying to put doubt in any way possible in my head that my family were setting it up.

Annette, love scam victim

Afraid for her safety, she handed over the cash but kept the cheque, which she banked when she got back to Australia.

On her third and final trip to Amsterdam, Annette’s motivation had changed.

She knew she had been conned, and she wanted her scammers held to account. 

By then she had lost $300,000.

“There was no getting out of it and I couldn’t see that until the end,” she said. 

“I thought if I followed it to the end I possibly might be able to get some of the money back, get one of them arrested.

“Everyone at the end stayed right away from me, they knew what I was there for.”

Having spent all her money, including her Work Cover pay out, Annette has become estranged from most of her family.

“I don’t think I’ll ever forgive myself for doing it.

“My fear is there are other men and women out there who are wanting a connection.”

Potential for murder

What begins as a romance scam often turns into victims being used as drug mules, according to the consumer watchdog.

More often what starts as a romance scam morphs into the victims being used as a drug mule. I cannot stress strongly enough, you have the potential for a long period in prison, you have the potential for murder.

Australian Competition and Consumer Commission deputy chair Delia Rickard

“More often what starts as a romance scam morphs into the victims being used as a drug mule.

“You are putting yourself in real danger travelling overseas to meet this scammers, there are a number of instances where Australian Federal Police turn up to stop people travelling.

Australian Competition and Consumer Commission deputy chair Delia Rickard says love scammers are "slick" and perfectly capable of fooling intelligent people into giving up their money.

Australian Competition and Consumer Commission deputy chair Delia Rickard says love scammers are "slick" and perfectly capable of fooling intelligent people into giving up their money.

“I cannot stress strongly enough, you have the potential for a long period in prison, you have the potential for murder.”

Far from being “the one”, your scammer is probably working out of a call centre, substituted on days off by another operator. 

“Usually they’re working out of call centres, you could have one person romancing several people at one time. If they’re sick someone else will come in and just be them for a period.”

Ms Rickard said she had heard of only a few cases as sophisticated as Annette’s, which was “mind boggling” in its complexity.

“I have met so many really intelligent people who have been victims of romance scams.

“We all want love in our lives and an element of love is being able to trust somebody .

“The scammers are very professional, they are very slick, they imitate legal documents all the time, they do documents that look like they’ve got state seals on them.

People are groomed over many months convincing them to travel overseas and return to Australia with additional luggage pieces or gifts, which when examined by authorities are sometimes found to contain illicit drugs.

Australian Federal Police spokesperson

“This is big business, this is organised crime.”

A spokesperson for the Australian Federal Police said they were continuing to see vulnerable people groomed to carry additional luggage or gifts back to Australia which contained drugs. 

“The AFP understands these scams are targeting vulnerable people through various financial and romance scams. People are groomed over many months convincing them to travel overseas and return to Australia with additional luggage pieces or gifts, which when examined by authorities are sometimes found to contain illicit drugs,” they said.

Between 2013 and 2015 the Australian Federal Police arrested 39 people for smuggling drugs into the country who claimed they had been scammed.

Ms Rickard said money transfer services were beginning to train their staff to have “difficult conversations” with people attempting to send large sums of money who appeared to be being conned. 

“At the ACCC we’re doing a lot of work with financial institutions, dating sites, the intermediaries which enable those scammers to connect with consumers.

“The good ones are now actively trying to prevent scammers.”

The financial toll

Love scam victims in Ballarat have taken out personal loans, accessed superannuation and run up credit cards to send money to fake partners, Child and Family Services financial counsellor Steve Symons said. 

Two petitioned for bankruptcy after handing over tens of thousands of dollars.

One lost over $100,000, another was financially “wiped out”, Mr Symons said.

“One owned a house but was still was hopelessly insolvent and petitioned for bankruptcy.

“The debt she’d incurred because of being scammed, they were wiped out by bankruptcy.”

The loss of their supposed partner could be as hard as the financial hit, Mr Symons said. 

“One, she was as upset about finding out her boyfriend wasn’t real as much as losing all the money.”

Mr Symons, who has seen transcripts of conversations with the con men, said he was surprised by how convincing they were. 

“They’re very good at it, they had her convinced.” 

Scamwatch tips this Valentine's Day:

One handed over $100,000. She ran up some big credit card debts and got some personal loans.

Child and Family Services financial counsellor Steve Symons
  • Never send funds or your financial details to someone you have met online. Look out for requests for money orders, wire transfers or international funds transfer.
  • Run a Google Image search to check the authenticity of any photos provided.
  • Take care if you have moved communication away from a dating website, as scammers prefer to correspond through phone or private emails to avoid detection.
  • Never share intimate photos or use webcams in an intimate setting, as you may become a victim of blackmail attempts.

Are you being targeted to bring drugs into Australia?

Warning signs

  • Has someone asked you to travel overseas for various reasons/ E.g. To sign paperwork or release money?
  • Has someone you’ve never met offered payment for you to go overseas?
  • Has someone sent you money to pay for your holiday?
  • Have you sent money overseas after being approached by a person or company to do so?
  • Has someone asked you to bring a bag, suitcase or a gift back into Australia?

Typical scenario

  • The person has been in contact with a person both via email/social media and phone, often for many years.
  • The contact revolves around any number of scams involving the person sending money to a specific location. Examples of scams we have seen include romance, sick children, lottery, inheritance, advance fee, fake cheque and dummy investigation scams.
  • The person is told that they need to sign paperwork in a another country, most often an Asian country, to release the money they are promised during the course of the scam, sometimes tens of millions of dollars.
  • They generally send their passport details including a photo to the scammer so the scammer can book their ticket.
  • Alternatively, the scammer may send spending/airfare money to the person using western union or the scammer may book the overseas travel themselves.
  • Once in the foreign country the person will be in a hotel room for a few days, also booked by the scammer.
  • The scammer will remain in contact via email and phone but never meet in person.
  • They may move the person around to different hotels but never meet up in person.
  • A person will generally show up to the room finally and give the person an airline ticket and hotel booking somewhere in Australia.
  • They will come up with a fictitious reason which usually involves documents required to be signed in Australia.
  • They will ask the person to bring back a bag with gifts for the contact in Australia.
  • The bag will contain drugs within the contents of the bag or the lining.

How should people notify authorities if they think themselves or a family member is being scammed?

  • If you are overseas and believe you may be a victim of this sort of scam, do not accept any property from scammers or provide them with any personal details. You can contact the DFAT emergency consular centre if you require assistance on +61 2 62613305.
  • If you are in Australia and believe you may have been a victim of a scam, received a similar offer of travel, or have any information please contact your local police, call Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000 or report it to SCAMwatch via their website www.scamwatch.gov.au or on 1300 795 995.
This story Woman loses $400,000 on love scam first appeared on The Wimmera Mail-Times.