Australians are losing millions of dollars to scammers according to figures in the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) Targeting Scams report. “Total combined losses reported to Scamwatch and other government agencies exceeded $489 million, $149 million more than in 2017 and they were expected to jump again to 532 million by the end of 2019… These record losses are likely just the tip of the iceberg. As the report suggests, “we know that not everyone who suffers a loss to a scammer reports it to a government agency.” In 2018, more than 378,000 scam reports were submitted to the ACCC’s Scamwatch, the Australian Cybercrime Online Reporting Network (ACORN) and other federal and state-based government agencies such as the Australian Taxation Office (ATO), of these dating and romance scams represented significant losses increasing from $42 million in 2017 to $60.5 million in 2018. Dating and romance scams are particularly insidious because they play on the most fundamental of human needs, love, caring and the desire for belonging.
Importantly, not all scammers are seeking money, sometimes it is sex or information they want and sometimes it is just the desire for control. In Australia there has been a rise in identity theft due to scamming. As a result, data is being collected on all forms of predatory behaviour as government’s try to protect their citizens, but the reality is the Internet is almost beyond regulation and there will always be victims of unethical and criminal behaviour. The stakes are high and the costs to individuals are immeasurable.
One of the main sources of scamming is social media. Not every contact made on social media will be a scammer, many good friendships can arise through being online, but social media has few boundaries and little or no accountability, so the best advice is to be sure you know who you are dealing with.
The Internet has literally dozens of sites warning about scammers and their activities, but people are still getting caught out. There is a very distinct profile which most rational people would easily recognize, but it is generally ignored because scammers are able to subvert rational evaluations by tapping into the human emotions and they are very skilled at selecting appropriate victims. For example, romance scammers will look through social media for people who are actively seeking a partner, or they will pick someone who appears to be alone. Scammers will frequently target older people who are likely to have superannuation tucked away somewhere and who probably have real estate and other assets. 54.8% of victims are female and 44% are male. Dating agencies and social media are the most common platforms used by scammers around the world and chat room scamming is fast becoming the norm.
The scammer will pretend to be a prospective companion, sometimes offering marriage, or a good friendship and he or she will aim to become your confident. Scammers are very good at using reverse psychology and emotional triggers. This is how it works:
Scammers will generally set up an appealing fake profile to lure victims into their virtual world. They will often present as trustworthy people, that is people of substance; doctors, lawyers, military personnel or other similar professions and, importantly, they may well be military personnel or people of similar rank. The scammer’s seduction can be crude or highly sophisticated depending on the target. There are no clear distinctions on who will become a scammer, similarly there is no clear profile describing their victims, just about anyone using the Internet is fair game. Scammers will almost certainly be living abroad, that is outside the country they choose to target. Distance is crucial to the scammer because it allows the perpetrator to believe she or he will not be caught.
Romance scammers will generally message you with compliments, they might tell you that they checked out your profile and you seem like an interesting person. Soon after, in a very short space of time, they may express deeper emotions for you. Sometimes they will move you away from messaging on social media and onto the more private email. Once the scammer has convinced you that he or she is genuine they will shower you with compliments and sometimes with gifts.
Scammers are very patient, they rarely give up, they can take months or even years to gain your trust. Once all your defenses are down the scammer will reveal his or her objective, it might be a request for financial help, for sex, explicit pictures or other. There is no age limit, scammers will target anyone who meets their criteria.
Scammers might embark on a plan to visit you, but they will never turn up. Some have been known to send money in small amounts and then to ask for more later. Once you have paid the amount of money they are seeking, you will not hear from them again.
At one point you might start to feel suspicious, but the scammer has planned for this and she or he will work more on your trust and deepening the relationship. Often the scammer becomes so proficient that they cannot see anything wrong in what they are doing. After all, you have been provided with some happy moments. Or, it may be that the scammer has listened and counselled you on your life world difficulties so they feel you are obliged to repay them. You may believe you have entered into a happy and seemingly healthy exchange but, you have not, you have entered a place of fantasy and virtual illusion. You will also find pulling back from this space is extremely difficult.
Sex on the Internet.
Over time, the scammer does not present as a villain, but as a friend or potential lover. You have never met this person and you are not likely to, but you feel reciprocating love will cause you no harm. Soon you find that Internet lovers are phantom lovers and they can run hot and cold, playing on your needs and desires when it suits them. One minute they are there for you and the next they are gone; this serves to deepen your emotions and heighten your basic needs for the scammer’s companionship.
Internet lovers generally use false identities and they will lie about their details. Some use more than one profile. You may be suspicious, but the chances are you will ignore your suspicions because your new friend is an appealing romantic and you like to see the best in people. You feel like you have found a good partner and someone who cares for you.
Soon you will realize that this friend knows everything about you and you know nothing about her or him. Somewhere along the line there might be a twinge of guilt from the perpetrator or he or she might feel you are on to something so they will work harder to make you think they are a good person and they really want to get to know you. However, try asking a scammer to meet you in person and you will be waiting a very long time. Online scammers do not meet up with their victims.
Scammers have all kinds of reasons for doing what they do, sometimes they are lonely, sometimes they are in pain, but scammers can also come with real dangers if they have criminal intent. They can use you as mules for money laundering or drugs and they can involve you in their illicit activities without you being fully aware of what is happening. In addition, scammers can lure their victims overseas and place them in physical danger of kidnap or terrorist activities, this is rare, but it does happen. Few governments will pay the ransom for kidnapped citizens, if this happens you are on your own.
Common Scammer Profiles.
Primary studies show that in most online relationships the predators are males cheating on their wives. The Internet has opened the flood gates on cheating in ways that may appear innocent. Many scammers and cheats do not think they are doing wrong because there is no human contact between parties. There are websites, chat rooms and messaging facilities that are devoted to making these connections easy and seemingly harmless and there are limited rules in place to protect users. Scammers and cheats generally have no remorse and their relationships are very easy to conceal.
Some online relationships are genuine and they can take place out of need, that is feelings of inadequacy or downright unhappiness, but it is hard to distinguish the good from the bad. Others can be instigated by a single or married person who just decides to play the field.
Most online connections start with friendship before becoming intimate and sexually explicit, but sexual stimulation and/or money seem to be the ultimate goals. There have been occasions where the scammer has seen the error of his or her ways and a good friendship has been established, but this is very unusual because the scammer has an addiction and without the appropriate help, they rarely change their behaviour.
In almost all cases the women who enter these relationships are unsuspecting and vulnerable and they can get seriously and emotionally hurt, but this is not a sign of weakness. Scammers do not just target those they perceive to be weak. In many cases strong, independent, self-determined women have fallen head first into a scammer’s deception. Scammers are very good at what they do, they know people and they can easily find the soft links in a person’s personality.
Scammers will invoke the need to be needed. Or, alternatively they will present as a person of strength and reliability. Scammers will talk a lot about trust and respect to captivate your interest and you will fall for it because you are an ethical and trustworthy person looking for a likeminded friend.
Online relationships always involve some form of emotional attachment often expressed in a deep sense of loving, caring or some form of admiration. Common insecurities that occur in offline relationships are easily placated in the online environment because no one has to take possession of the consequences. Talk is cheap and very effective. There are no secondary diversions so you are unlikely to tell anyone what is happening because you are feeling immersed in this new experience of love and caring, or perhaps you have shared more than you should have and you have a fear of being exposed.
Relationships can start and end at the click of a mouse and they usually do when the scammer has achieved what she or he set out to achieve. When this happens, the real emotional cost begins to set in.
The Emotional Cost.
The reality is this: The financial loses to scammers can be enormous, but the emotional costs can be much greater. I have been a therapist and counsellor for a number of years and I have worked with many people going through traumatic relationship break-ups, but the Internet has initiated a new kind of relationship breakdown where both the rules of engagement and the inevitable separation are very different.
Internet relationships can be equally complex and problematic as face to face relationships, but their termination can have longer and more devastating impacts, sometimes lasting months or even years. Online breakdowns are often more severe than the psychological traumas encountered in person to person relationships, simply because they have left the individual powerless, embarrassed, ashamed and in a virtual void. The victim is duped by a new medium, technology; over which there is little control and absolutely no recompense. Further, because the virtual world is closer to fantasy, it invokes the deepest levels of human consciousness (and the unconscious), often triggering the memory of old wounds.
People who have had this experience should not blame themselves, effective scammers are highly astute professionals, but they are also people who may have desperate needs themselves and with no help available they transfer their pain onto their innocent victims.
Waking up to the realization that you have been scammed on the Internet is like drowning is a pool of thick liquid. Normally, you would hit the waters and swim, but you cannot move out of this feeling of being frozen in time. You have experienced a totalizing cybernetic abjection; in other words, you are lost in space. However, blaming yourself or others never helps anyone! It is important to take stock and forgive. You can become back from this and forgiveness is always the best pathway to healing.
Importantly, those feeling the serious effects of scamming should seek help immediately. A broken online relationship can lead to depression and thoughts of suicide and there has been a rise in deaths across the world due to broken online connections.
A final word on scamming. Being scammed can arouse feelings of anger and retribution, but like the rest of us, scammers are human beings with human problems. Scamming is often the consequences of psychosocial issues that pervade consciousness and target those who appear better off. While scamming as a growing practice needs to be called to account, we should do so knowing that scammers can and do become rehabilitated. Ultimately, the scammer bears the burden of his or her actions, whether in the present or in the future. Nature has its own form of justice. All you need to do is heal yourself.
Scamming is a global problem beyond the laws of jurisprudence and ethical standards and it needs a new and global response that goes to the deepest levels of the scammer’s psyche and the pain experienced both by the scammer and the recipient. The world is a difficult place for many and it needs to be remembered that society creates its deviants and criminals. We are all partly responsible for the world we have shaped and manipulated and it up to each individual to change it.