Online Love Predators Raking in Millions

No doubt plenty of people were sent flowers and cards on Valentine’s Day earlier this month, but others may have received a less romantic surprise in the mail.

Catfish fraud is the term used when a person assumes a fake online identity to gain trust, usually in the context of a relationship, and then convinces others to send them money. The problem isn’t a new one, but it is growing so quickly that potential victims of online dating scams are now receiving warning letters from the ACCC in the commission’s latest bid to clamp down on this type of fraud.

The latest figures from the ACCC suggest that online dating scams cost Australians over $25 million a year, and they can even be potentially dangerous as scammers may use their victims for the purposes of money laundering, drug trafficking or other illicit activities.

Although catfish fraud takes place all over Australia, NSW residents have paid out the most last year, with figures showing that more than $8.911 million was stolen from online dating site users based in NSW last year. This is followed by Victoria and then Queensland.

What is the ACCC doing to combat catfish fraud?

Last year, the ACCC teamed up with the Australasian Consumer Fraud Taskforce to disrupt the activities of online, overseas scammers and keep consumers in Australia safe. The Scam Disruption Project is aimed at increasing awareness of fraud among internet users and where potentially fraudulent transactions are detected, sending letters to the people involved to warn them about the possibility of a scam taking place.

Although the scam disruption project only started last year after being piloted in the ACT and NSW, it has reportedly shown a reasonable degree of success according to ACCC deputy chairwoman Delia Rickard. The pilot program showed around 60% of people who were contacted stopped making payments to scammers.

Using financial intelligence and information from dating websites, the agency identifies people who may be at risk and who are sending money overseas to countries that are commonly implicated in dating scams. As there are often legitimate reasons for sending money overseas, the agency runs filters over the list of potential victims to weed out the ones who are sending money legitimately, and then gets in touch with the remaining names on the list.

Once identified, the ACCC sends out letters the people involved and explains how online scams work, provides information about the types of stories that scammers often tell, and suggests the people contact the ACCC to discuss their situation further.

Who does catfish fraud affect?

Catfish fraud can affect anybody and the ACCC reports receiving complaints from victims of all ages and sexual orientation. The most common group would appear to be people aged between 45 and 55 and the spread is even between male and female. This particular age group is often especially vulnerable as they may be divorced, their children may have left home, and they could be feeling lonely and be in search of a meaningful relationship.

Dating fraudsters are very good at manipulating their victims and may take time to gain their trust before asking for money. Generally they will defraud their victims over a period of time, repeatedly asking them for more cash. There have been cases where scams have turned nasty with scammers continuing to blackmail their victims for cash after they refuse to give them any more money.

In some cases dating fraud can take the form of outright blackmail using images and content obtained via webcam. The scammer will secretly record Skype or other webcam interactions and they may ask their victim to share or do something intimate during the conversation. After the conversation they will then inform the victim they have recorded it and threaten to share footage with the victim’s friends and family, post it to their social media pages, or post it on public sites if they don’t receive payment.

Catfish fraud remains a problem for Australians, and it can be financially and emotionally devastating for victims who often blame themselves for being taken in. With the internet and developments in technology it is getting easier for fraudsters to scam people, but it is also getting easier for people to detect fraud with initiatives like the ACCC’s scam disruption project and simple tools like Google which can be used to verify photographs and identities.

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About Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Specialist Criminal Lawyer and Principal at Sydney Criminal Lawyers, Sydney's leading firm of criminal and traffic defence lawyers.
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