Lonely hearts watch out – your wallets or your good credit rating could be next!

It was revealed by Queensland’s Courier Mail last week that more than $15 million was lost by victims of dating scams last year. This was perpetrated by overseas criminals mainly from West Africa, masquerading as online love interests.

In response, dating websites in Australia will be now be required by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to display scam warnings in an attempt to combat one of the fastest growing types of scam, preying on lonely people. It is threatening action against companies that fail to comply.

A top-level fraud conference on the Gold Coast was told almost 600 Australians had lost $15.1 million to cyber-criminals posing as potential partners, with one-in-five being duped of more than $100,000.

Police Commissioner Bob Atkinson said romance scams had become the “fraud of choice” and victims were being left financially and emotionally crushed.

“We’re seeing thousands of Australians sending millions of dollars to criminals overseas every month,” he told the International Organised Fraud Symposium at Sanctuary Cove.

“Apart from losing large amounts of wealth and in some cases their homes as a result of this brutal type of offence, some people take suicide as an option,” he said.

And the victims? Mostly elderly widows.

Queensland Police Fraud Squad chief superintendent Brian Hay said women “are twice as likely to be victims”.

“It’s particularly savage. We’re talking about vulnerable people who put their heart on the line and lose their house and life savings as well,” he said.

How the scams work

The Government’s SCAMWatch website explains in more detail how these dating scams work.

“Scammers target victims by creating fake profiles on legitimate internet dating services. Once you are in contact with a scammer, they will express strong emotions for you in a relatively short period of time and will suggest you move the relationship away from the website, to phone, email and/or instant messaging. Scammers often claim to be from Australia, but travelling or working overseas.

They will go to great lengths to gain your interest and trust, such as sharing personal information and even sending you gifts. Scammers may take months, to build what seems like the romance of a lifetime and may even pretend to book flights to visit you, but never actually come. Once they have gained your trust they will ask you (either subtly or directly) for money, gifts or your banking/credit card details. They will pretend to need these for a variety of reasons.” The website explains.

How scams affect the victims

For people who have fallen for this type of scam, generally they are robbed of money. But in some cases, the fraudsters can have enough personal information about their victims to be able to get credit cards or loans or even mortgage properties in their name.

The costs of identity theft can be significant long term for the victim and are magnified by the fact that  identity fraud is not often detected until the victim attempts to take out credit in their own name and is refused due to credit rating defaults they didn’t initiate.

It can be quite a shock for someone to realise their entire financial freedom has been taken away, along with any monies that have been stolen from them. Basically someone with credit file defaults finds it extremely difficult to obtain credit for 5 years while the listing is part of their credit record.

Any kind of credit account (from mortgages and credit cards through to mobile phone accounts) which remains unpaid past 60 days can be listed as a default by creditors on the victim’s credit rating. Credit rating defaults remain on credit files in Australia for 5 years. The consequence of people having a black mark on their credit rating is generally an inability to obtain credit.

Repairing a credit rating in Australia can sometimes be difficult for the individual to undertake. By law in Australia, if a listing contains inconsistencies the credit file holder has the right to negotiate their amendment or removal, but the difficulty is, to clear their good name, the identity theft victim needs to prove to creditors they did not initiate the credit. Not only are victims generally required to produce police reports, but large amounts of documentary evidence to substantiate to creditors the case of identity theft.

SCAMwatch outlines some ways people can protect themselves when dating online:

-ALWAYS consider the possibility that the approach may be a scam…Try to remove the emotion from your decision making no matter how caring or persistent they seem.
-Talk to an independent friend, relative or fair trading agency before you send any money. THINK TWICE before sending money to someone you have only recently met online or haven’t met in person.
-NEVER give credit card or online account details to anyone by email.
-Be very careful about how much personal information you share on social network sites. Scammers can use your information and pictures to create a fake identity or to target you with a scam.
-If you agree to meet in person, tell family and friends where you are going. If this includes overseas travel, consider carefully the advice on www.smarttraveller.gov.au before making any plans.
-Where possible, avoid any arrangement with a stranger that asks for up-front payment via money order, wire transfer or international funds transfer. It is rare to recover money sent this way.
-If you think you have provided your account details to a scammer, contact your bank or financial institution immediately.
-Money laundering is a criminal offence: do not agree to transfer money for someone else.

For more information, or for people who need help restoring a credit rating following identity theft contact MyCRA Credit Repairs tollfree 1300 617 218 or visit the website www.mycra.com.au.

Image: renjith krishnan/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net