A Warkworth woman says speaking publicly about how she was conned by an online romance scammer has helped her move on from the emotional hurt he caused.
Thea Strydom fell hard for a charming man posing as a New Zealand engineer trapped overseas without access to his Kiwi bank accounts, and agreed to send him money.
She initially sent him smaller amounts, and was only saved from a larger financial loss by an officer at BNZ who twice refused to allow a money transfer to go ahead.
“I have been attacked emotionally. I felt hurt and also feel a failure to myself that I let this happen to me,” said Strydom, who came to New Zealand in the 1990s after her first husband was murdered in South Africa.
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But after revealing her traumatic romance scam experience in a speech at her local Warkworth Toastmasters club, Strydom said she felt able to start putting it behind her – and she’s found sympathy and understanding for her suffering, rather than the blame she had expected.
Few are brave enough to speak publicly about being conned, although it’s more common than might be expected.
Online romance scams are now often recognised not to be the work of lone conmen, but professionally-run criminal organisations in Africa and Russia that have honed their skills and systems just as legitimate companies hone their ability to market their products.
Fraud and cybercrime are the most under-reported of all crimes according to the Crime and Victims Survey.
But Strydom’s experiences have left her dismayed at the lack of interest from authorities in what appears to be one of the fastest-growing crimes affecting New Zealanders.
She called for police to “take it seriously, and also interact with overseas police departments to uplift these cyber criminals syndicates, and order them to court”.
“The scammers know now that the police will not imprison them, and will let them get away with their criminal acts,” she said.
Strydom reported the crime to police, but said they were not interested.
“The police reckon you brought it onto yourself, and you have to be more careful in the future.”
This attitude, she believed, was hiding the true scale and harm caused by romance scams.
She pointed to the recent Crime and Victims Survey, which showed how few victims bothered to report online crime.
“Only 7 per cent of the victims of cybercrime will report it to the police in New Zealand,” she said.
“How will [we] know … the true scale of the harm done to the victims?”
Cybercrime expert Bronwyn Groot from security consultancy QRisk praised BNZ for identifying the attempt to defraud Strydom, but said too often banks’ systems did not prevent people from making transfers to crooks overseas.
“I’m very impressed BNZ picked up on it, because many times banks don’t,” said Groot, who worked for BNZ for many years fighting fraud and elder abuse.
Research overseas, where romance scams were taken more seriously, showed the sophistication of the scammers was impressive, and shocking.
“It’s not sole operators,” said Groot. “It’s big gangs, and the Russians are involved now.”
In 2019, a US company managed to get a Nigerian romance scammer to leak a “playbook” guide, developed to train new recruits in the most effective techniques for winning the affections of victims.
This included training them not to start asking for money too soon.
“The longest romance scam I’ve seen was three years. I think she was first asked for money after around six months,” Groot says.
The online dating romance scam emerged as a global phenomenon around 2007, and overseas researchers have shed light on how the multi-billion dollar industry works.
Groot said Australian academic Monica Whitty had done more than anyone to lift the lid on the industry, including on the “narratives” that have proven most effective with male and female victims.
Women were often presented with fake personas of attractive, professional men who had found themselves in positions of vulnerability which they need help to get out of.
The female personas used to con men often involved attractive non-professional women.
The organisations had no difficulties in faking documents, and even introducing other characters into their narratives, like scammers posing as doctors, or military personnel, to corroborate their stories.
Strydom’s experience showed many of these techniques in play.
“We didn’t talk about money in the beginning, and we shared our life stories and about our families and work. After a few weeks he told me he was stuck in Singapore with his building project as he is an architectural engineer,” Strydom said.
“He had to pay the outstanding fee for a resource consent of the building, and he ran out of money in his business account, and he has to use his personal account. He hadn’t told his New Zealand bank that he was overseas, and they declined any withdrawals. That was a valid reason. He provided me with all the documentation that looked real.”
She even had a video chat with him via Skype, but the picture was always “a bad connection” and the images very blurred, Strydom said.
In 2012, Whitty estimated from a nationally representative survey that almost 230,000 people might have been conned by romance fraudsters in Great Britain alone, with a range of losses from hundreds to hundreds of thousands of pounds.
It’s been suggested that people who scored highly for romantic idealisation, believing in true love and seeking a Mills & Boon-style romance, might be more susceptible to people posing as their perfect match online.
Strydom said it became clear her scammer had researched her online, reading through open Facebook posts, but she also disclosed a lot of information during their online discussions.
Features of online romance, including the ability of victims to reread conversations again and again, can create the illusion of “hyperpersonal” relationships, which do not exist in the real world of face-to-face dating.
Whitty’s studies also revealed romance scammers will use some of the same techniques legitimate companies use on consumers, such as creating a sense of time pressure to force them into making quick decisions.
Whitty found victims experienced a double hit of financial loss and emotional harm, including grief at the loss of a relationship.
That resonated with Groot’s experience.
“What I’m seeing is whether or not they lost money, the recovery for the victim is on average around two years,” she said.
“Not only do they lose trust in other people; they lose trust in themselves. Fantastic, smart women and men will go, ‘I can’t believe I was so bloody stupid’,” she said.
“It’s really common that victims go out and buy a dog,” said Groot. “I say good on them.”
That’s just what Strydom has done. She said Lucy, the first of three dogs she now owns, had been an invaluable companion as she began to put her traumatic experience behind her.