The cost of empathy: Scammers set victims back almost $10m

Man engaged in online chat - beware of romance scams
Romance scams set victims back almost $10m in 2018 Photo credit: Getty

Lonely and empathetic people need to be extra careful of falling for elaborate stories asking for increasing amounts of money, romance scam figures show.

Netsafe New Zealand data shows that 320 romance scams were reported last year, with losses of $9.49m.  As recent BNZ research shows that a quarter of kiwis who lose money to scams don't tell anyone, the true loss could be much higher. 

To August this year, 209 romance scams have been reported, with a single total loss of $900,000.

Financial Service Complaints Ltd (FSCL) typically gets involved at the point where a money transfer firm, such as Western Union, blocks a transfer upon suspicion of a scam. 

Susan Taylor, chief executive officer at FSCL said that by that time, several payments to the scammer may have been made.  

"Scammers often prey on men and women who are a lot older [than they are], often with an elaborate story that tugs at the heartstrings."

Among recent cases, the company has dealt with is one where a man had been in an online relationship with a Nigerian woman for eight years.  Having seemingly used payments to train as a nurse, the woman asked him for more cash to show local authorities she could purchase flights before joining him in New Zealand. It wasn't until a pre-travel cash allowance was blocked by the remitter that the legitimacy of the relationship was questioned.

Complaining to the FSCL, the man was adamant his relationship was real, however, couldn't provide proof to allow the transfer to complete.  

 "Often, the person scammed is so tied up with the story, they [initially] refuse to believe they've been scammed," Taylor said.

Taylor confirmed that most romance scams start online, whether through an online dating site, social media or chat room and that typically, the scammer starts by requesting a small amount of money, with the requests getting larger and larger.

"Among the typical red flags are [the scammer] wanting people to pay money upfront for air tickets, or [requesting money] to apply for a visa or a government reason in their own country.

"[Scammers] have [also] said they're arranging to rent a flat and need money to pay the landlord upfront," Taylor added.

Trade Me spokesperson Millie Silvester said that safety is a priority on FindSomeone, the company's dating web site. People should read profiles carefully and not disclose personal information such as their surname, address, or any financial information, no matter how good the reasons for asking may be.

"We [Trade Me] screen all FindSomeone members to check they're the real deal and use background tools to monitor activity and stop banned [people] from getting back onsite."

Silvester also said that people on the website may be asked to consent to a criminal history check and if there are convictions or if they refuse a check, their membership is cancelled.

"On the occasion that something does go wrong or if something doesn't feel right, [Trade Me] strongly encourages members to get in touch using the Community Watch feature on every page.  

"If necessary, we'll also help our members go to the Police."

A spokesperson for Tinder said that the company has a dedicated fraud team that scans profiles for suspicious language and manually reviews any member profile in question.

"Ultimately, no one, whether they met on Tinder or not, should ever send money to someone they haven't met in person."   

Netsafe data shows that financial losses from scams is increasing. From an online perspective, people should proceed with caution, check the site's terms and conditions and be careful of over-sharing.  If in doubt, block further contact and report suspicious behaviour.