Wednesday 25 Sep 2013
– There have been plenty of warnings but love-struck Australians continue to part with more than $20 million a year in online romance scams.
There are now calls for a national approach to combat the fraud, which can have a devastating – and potentially fatal – fallout.
Earlier this year, a West Australian woman was found dead, presumed murdered, in South Africa after travelling there to see a Nigerian man she had met online.
Since then, the state’s police have stopped other scam victims from travelling if they believe they are heading for a similar fate.
The prevalence of the scams has prompted the Western Australia’s fraud squad to join forces with the state’s consumer-protection watchdog to take on the organised crime gangs responsible.
But it is a huge effort, and those witnessing the impact first-hand say Australia needs to set up an effective national taskforce to come anywhere close to winning the battle
Neil Johnstone, a 50-year-old divorcee, turned to the internet to find companionship.
He was bombarded with attention from Mavis Mensah, who claimed to be an Australian living in west Africa.
You just believe within yourself that they’re real, they are the best person … and anything they ask for or anything they want – you give it to them no matter what.
But there was heartbreak ahead.
“I finished work – I was on night shift – and I got that message and I was over the moon it was all happening,” he told 7.30.
“I jumped in the car, drove to Perth very excited. Got to the airport – nothing.”
This plane ticket, one of five Mr Johnstone paid for over their year-long relationship, turned out to be fake.
And so was Mavis, whose photos belonged to a US-based model.
“You just believe within yourself that they’re real, they are the best person, that’s the person I want and anything they ask for or anything they want – you give it to them no matter what,” Mr Johnstone said.
He borrowed most of the $100,000 he sent to west Africa, and says he was upfront with the banks over what he needed most of the loans for.
“It’s pretty close to D-day where all the banks want their money back now,” he said.
Detective Sergeant Rob Martin from the Western Australian Major Fraud Squad has heard it all before.
“It’s a very unpleasant job to actually have to turn up on the victims doorstep and break the news that the person that has made them feel better than they’ve felt for a very long time isn’t real and the romance that they thought they were involved in is just a fantasy,” he said.
Perth resident Tracey Holmes, 48, is still coming to terms with the fact that she has been conned.
She thought a US man called Todd Hamilton was in love with her. Over the past year she sent him $25,000 to help with his business.
He was the second online identity she has lost money to in recent years.
I actually thought he was a lovely gentleman. And I thought he had the most sexy voice I’ve heard from a man.
“I actually thought he was a lovely gentleman. And I thought he had the most sexy voice I’ve heard from a man,” she said.
But the romance turned ugly when Ms Holmes discovered his photographs were of an unknown man and were probably lifted from a social media site.
Now, the scammer is blackmailing her over revealing photos she sent to him online. He had also taken secret footage of her.
“He has scantily clad pictures – not fully exposed but pretty scantily clad,” she said.
“I had no idea that he was videoing me but he videoed me. So he’s been accumulating information about me all this time and using it against me to now blackmail me into paying him $10,000.”
Ms Holmes was also duped into becoming a so-called “money mule” – someone used by the scammers to funnel stolen cash through Australian bank accounts.
“He started doing transactions through my account,” she said.
“When the money went into my account they would ask for an SMS code and I would give him the code and wherever the money was going … it was going.”
With about 300 new scam victims a month in Western Australia, the state’s fraud squad has pooled resources with the Department of Consumer Protection to take on the fraudsters.
Called Operation Sunbird, it is identifying scams by tracking large money transactions from WA to west African countries, and then contacting the victims.
Initially they are contacting the victims by post.
“In 63 per cent of cases, we’re not seeing any further transactions following that first letter,” said Ann Driscoll from the Department of Consumer Protection.
But others refuse to face the truth and keep sending the money.
To me they seem like trained psychologists, the way they’re able to actually manipulate the victim. They’re able to tap into the things that actually push the buttons of the victim.
Detective Sergeant Martin says while the victims might seem naive, the scammers are convincing and constantly refining their techniques.
“To me they seem like trained psychologists, the way they’re able to actually manipulate the victim. They’re able to tap into the things that actually push the buttons of the victim,” he said.
But the costs can go well beyond financial loss.
In March, 67-year-old West Australian woman Jette Jacobs was found dead in South Africa, after she travelled there to meet a man who she had been sending money to online.
Since then police have stopped several others from travelling overseas.
“We had an occasion where a gentleman from here, in his 70s, was about to travel to Ghana,” said Detective Senior Sergeant Dom Blackshaw.
“We were able to get the name of the person who was going to collect him from the airport.
“He was going to meet a love interest – a young girl. She’d actually provided the name of her so-called brother to this gentleman.
“Once we did the check, we identified he was a member of the Sakawa Boys – they were an organised crime gang based in Ghana”
– Claire Moody