Australian Institute of Criminology

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Relationship consumer fraud: Dating and social networking scams

The theme of the 2014 National Consumer Fraud Week is relationship scams and knowing who you are dealing with online, to help reduce the risk of victimisation from scams. Accordingly, 2013 findings relating to relationship scams are discussed in greater detail in this section. A relationship scam (classified as dating or social networking scams in the 2013 ACFT survey) is defined as a scam that may be conducted through legitimate or illegitimate dating or social networking websites and often takes the form of requiring a payment for each email sent and received by a potential match. Alternatively, scammers may deceive victims by posing as a potential partner and then claiming to have an ill relative or severe financial problems and seek financial assistance from the ‘love interest’ they met on the site, or alternatively they may ask for money for flights to meet up with the victim.

In previous years, it has been found in the ACFT survey that dating scams have resulted in the greatest levels of reported victimisation, even though they were the least prevalent scam type received by participants. These findings were consistent with scam complaints made to the ACCC in 2012 (ACCC 2013). Cross, Smith and Richards (2014) stressed the difficulty in assessing the impact of consumer fraud on victims, as some people may not realise they have been the victims of fraud or may feel embarrassed or upset and not wish to make a formal report. The paper also highlighted instances where victims of romance scams had taken their own lives when discovering the fraud, or where the victims had been robbed and killed by scammers.

Due to the extent of victimisation being reported to the ACCC in 2012, the ACCC issued voluntary best practice guidelines for dating websites to prevent the proliferation of romance scams. Some of the guidelines included displaying warning messages in appropriate locations on the website, implementing a vetting and checking system to identify scam sites or false advertisements on legitimate sites and providing a mechanism whereby uses can easily report scams (ACCC 2012). In 2012, Project Sunbird was launched as a joint operation between the Western Australian Police Major Fraud Squad and the Western Australian Consumer Protection department (WA Scamnet 2013). The project found that since August 2012, Western Australians have sent over $6m to West African countries as a result of relationship frauds (WA Scamnet 2013).

There were 234 participants who had received a relationship scam invitation in the 12 months prior to them completing the 2013 ACFT survey. The most common methods of receiving a dating or romance scam was through email (18.1%) or via the internet (9.5%; see Table 18). Participants reported receiving romance or dating scam invitations from multiple sources and by contrast with other scam types, they were contacted frequently by scammers.

Table 18 Mode of delivery of romance or dating scam invitations
Mail % Email % Phone % SMS % Internet %
No contact 1,009 97.6 847 81.9 1,006 97.3 1,011 97.8 936 90.5
1–5 times 13 1.3 59 5.4 11 1.1 11 1.1 46 4.4
6–10 times 4 0.4 34 3.3 3 0.3 2 0.2 14 1.4
11–20 times 4 0.4 31 3.0 5 0.5 4 0.4 12 1.2
21–50 times 1 0.1 22 2.1 5 0.5 3 0.3 10 1.0
More than 50 times 3 0.3 41 4.0 4 0.4 3 0.3 16 1.5
Total 1,034 1,034 1,034 1,034 1,034

Source: ACFT Consumer Fraud Survey 2013 [AIC data file]

The states and territories where participants reported receiving the most dating or social networking scam invitations (per total respondents) were the Australian Capital Territory (n=29, 33.3%) and South Australia (n=15, 29.4%), followed equally by Queensland and Victoria (24.7%). There were no participants from New Zealand who reported receiving a dating or social networking scam invitation in the 12 months prior to completing the survey.

Of the 234 respondents who had received a dating or romance scam invitation in the 12 months prior to completing the survey, those aged 17 years and under (18.2%) and those aged 65 years and over (15.6%) were the least likely age groups to receive an invitation of that nature. Respondents in the age categories 18–24 years, (33.3%), 25–34 years (30.4%) and 45–54 years (27.0%) received the highest amount of dating scam invitations. There was one participant who failed to disclose their age.

Victimisation through romance, dating scams or social networking scams

A victim for the purposes of the survey was defined as someone who had sent money or personal details or both money and personal details to a scammer as a result of a scam invitation.

Thirty-one participants (3% of the total sample; 13% of respondents who had received a romance or dating scam) reported in the survey that they had been the victim of a dating, romance or social networking scam in the 12 months prior to completing the survey. An additional 18 participants stated they had requested further information in response to a dating or romance scam invitation, but had not become a victim of the scam.

Losses

Seven participants sent personal details only and four participants sent money only to a scammer in response to a dating, romance or social networking scam. Another 20 participants sent both money and personal details. Of the 24 participants who sent money and personal details, 18 specified a loss amount. The money sent by respondents ranged from a minimum amount of $5 to a maximum of $128,000. The total amount sent as a result of a dating or social networking scam was $536,779.76 with the median amount being $9,500.

Victim demographics

The highest percentage of people who were the victims of dating or social networking scams resided in the Australian Capital Territory (n=5, 6% of those participants who had received a scam invitation of that nature). Twenty-nine percent of victims were aged between 45 and 54 years, 26 percent of victims were aged 55–64 years. There were no victims aged 17 years and under.

Respondents aged between 45–54 years sent the highest amount of money in response to dating or romance scams. Four respondents in that age category sent a total of $276,800. Although, respondents aged between 55–64 years sent money more frequently, six respondents in that age category sent a total of $27,777. There were no respondents aged 17 years and under who sent money in response to a dating, romance or social networking scam invitation.

Of the participants who identified themselves as victims of a dating or social networking scam nine (29% of victims) were male and 22 (71% of victims of that scam type) were female. The majority of victims (10 respondents) said their yearly income was between $20,000 and $40,000, with four respondents saying their yearly income was over $80,000 and another seven who specified they would rather not disclose those details.

Responding to victimisation

Participants were asked if they had reported the scam to anyone. Options they could choose from were family and friends, police, SCAMwatch, the ACCC or another regulatory agency, the business represented in the scam, an Internet Service Provider or a lawyer or Legal Aid representative. Twenty-six (84%) victims of a dating, romance or social networking scams advised in the survey that they had reported the scam to someone from the options list. Five victims of a dating or social networking scam advised they did not report or tell anyone about the scam. When family and/or friends were removed as a reporting option, the number of victims who reported the scam dropped to 18 (58%).