Scam … Cassandra Pybus outed ''Charles''. Photo: Nicole Emanuel
Online dating scammers have cost Australians almost $10 million over the first six months of this year.
According to the latest data from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, 4900 victims have lost almost $52 million to online dating scams since 2009 as Australians search for love online in unprecedented numbers.
The introduction by the ACCC of voluntary guidelines for dating websites in February this year has failed to curb the problem, with the number of complaints continuing to rise.
Online dating scams had a conversion rate of more than 50 per cent, which meant that more than half of people targeted on romance websites end up losing money, often to international syndicates.
Most criminal gangs use a variation of the same scam to entrap those seeking romance online, according to the ACCC.
''Scammers spend time grooming their victims with techniques such as professing their emotional commitment or love and sharing false personal stories. The victims may be specifically targeted and vulnerable when making their personal details readily available,'' an ACCC spokeswoman said.
Once the scammers gain the victim's trust, they usually organise a meeting before claiming a last-minute death, sickness or accident and asking for financial details or the transfer of money via a wiring service.
The new guidelines launched by the ACCC on Valentine's Day this year encouraged website operators to check the profile pictures and internet protocol addresses of all new members. The scammers often steal images from modelling agency websites, while organised crime gangs were believed to be based in Nigeria, Ghana, eastern Europe and parts of Asia.
But an eHarmony spokesman, Jason Chuck, said international syndicates constantly evolved and devised new ways to avoid detection.
''It's difficult to pinpoint the origins of scams when they can redirect IP addresses to other locations,'' Mr Chuck said.
He said eHarmony had responded with a range of policies and technology checks to tackle the problem.
''We have an automated system that does a lot of checks for us but we also have a full-time team that's dedicated to monitoring the quality and the integrity of the user base. We also go to lengths to ensure that our users report any suspicious behaviour and that they sign off on our safety tips page before they begin any communications,'' Mr Chuck said.
He said con artists were also less likely to target introduction agencies with paywalls in place.
Glenis Carroll, the managing director of RSVP, which is owned by Fairfax Media, said the company also used technology to block suspicious accounts. But she urged people to exercise caution and commonsense.
''We will do everything we can to stop these people coming onto our sites but there's a basic rule that you never give money to someone you haven't met. People … believe the person they are corresponding with is genuine. So when the request [for money] comes through, they act differently than they may otherwise,'' Ms Carroll said.
Something didn't compute
CHARLES was clearly keen to impress upon me that he was the real deal, and not some flaky pervert; he even provided his personal email address so that we could communicate directly, rather than pay eHarmony for the privilege. It was all very reassuring but nagging at me was the bit about his son: wasn't a 60-year-old widower a bit too old to have a child in school, and why would he send him to school in Malaysia?
Google can usually solve all such conundrums, but my cunning interrogation of the web was unable to find the consultant drilling engineer called Charles Carroll. It was only when his name was matched with a phrase from his message that Google found him, or rather located a copy of an email message from him that was almost identical to the one I had received. This email was sent to a woman living in America through a different internet dating site and was now posted on a website called romancescams.com.
A few hours of compulsive web searching revealed that the photograph was stolen from a male model named John Daniel, and that this image, paired with many different aliases, had been posted hundreds of times on internet dating sites.
In reality, the promising widower from Artarmon was a room of electronically savvy youth in Lagos, Nigeria, who could just as readily be a woman named Emma, as circumstances required. The common scenario was that Charles, or Emma, worked for an international construction company, or an aid agency, and in the course of developing an intense online romance would be deployed in Africa, where a life-threatening drama would require a big injection of money.