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Romance scammers are exploiting Australians living with a disability | #DatingScams | #LoveScams | #RomanceScans


Need to know

  • Australians with a disability are more than twice as likely to report experiencing a romance scam. 
  • Disability advocates say abuse of people with a disability is rife. 
  • CHOICE says the businesses involved need to do more to protect consumers. 



Chris* first met Hana on Snapchat. She suggested they shift to another platform to get to know each other better. 

So, on a hot summer night in early 2023, as Chris lay on a leather sofa bed in the spare room of his best friend’s house, lit by the dull light from his mobile phone, he launched Telegram – an encrypted messaging app favoured by drug dealers and the alt-right. Chris isn’t involved in either, but he opened direct messages and typed, “Howdy.”

“Hello Chris,” Hana replied. 

They talked on Telegram until well past midnight and into the next morning. Chris told Hana about his TAFE studies, his job, and his plan to move out of home. Hana listened attentively. Chris soon sent a picture of himself. “Do you think I look cute?” he said.

“You look great, but I think it’s better if you show your big smile,” said Hana. 

In return, Hana sent a picture of herself. She looked to be in her mid-20s and was wearing a flattering yellow blouse, with brown hair to her shoulders framing a kind face.


Messages between Chris and Hana, a scammer.





After a nervous gap between messages, Chris typed, “Can I ask you something… are you single?”

“Yes, I am single,” Hana replied.

“Because the last three relationships were fake ones,” Chris wrote. “Scammers.”

“I’m not that kind of person,” typed Hana.

“The last two people I had feelings for said that, and they took advantage of me. I have a disability, so I’m an easy target,” Chris wrote.

Looking for love 

Chris, who lives in Adelaide, is 26 and was looking for a relationship. He turned to a space familiar to him – the internet. Online, people with a disability may not face the same stigma they often face in real-world dating. 

Hana is not the first person Chris had messaged. In 2023, he messaged no fewer than eight potential partners who all turned out to be romance scammers. Meeting them through Snapchat, he gave them his phone number or email address before they suggested moving the chat to a platform with end-to-end encryption, such as Telegram, WhatsApp or Google Chat. 

They suggested moving the chat to a platform with end-to-end encryption, such as Telegram, WhatsApp or Google Chat

Monica Whitty, Professor of Human Factors in Cyber Security at Monash University, says this is common. “By moving them to other sites, it increases the ability to communicate with the victim and develop an intimate relationship with them.”

Geoff Rowe, CEO of Aged and Disability Advocacy Australia, says that people with a disability can be more vulnerable to romance scams because their exposure to romantic relationships may be limited and scammers use that vulnerability to engage people.




How romance scams work

Before Hana, Chris had met two less sophisticated suspected scammers, “Angela” and “Viv”. 

Viv told Chris that she lived in the same suburb as him, was “just bored” and wished she had someone to hang out with. They arranged to meet, but first, she said, Chris would have to send her a small amount of money. When Chris said he would do it later, she said, “Just do it now, okay. You do it now!” Put off by the demand, Chris ended the conversation.

Angela was even more forward and made sexual advances as soon as they moved the conversation to an encrypted platform. This was too much for Chris, who wasn’t looking for sexual intimacy. Angela quickly changed tactics. Suddenly, she was an orphaned Monash University student living with her grandma who needed a $200 gift card for Steam, a video game store. She said the gift card was for food. Chris didn’t send Angela or Viv any money.

Scammers develop an intimate and trusting relationship before asking for small gifts, like flowers or gift cards, to prime their targets for larger requests

While Chris initiated these conversations, what happened next was part of a common online trap. Whitty says typical scammer profiles will “exaggerate the aspects that someone would want to date” to lure people in. For heterosexual men, the profile might be a “very pretty” young woman with “some kind of vulnerability”, often a struggling student or nurse. 

What follows is a process of grooming where scammers develop an intimate and trusting relationship before testing the waters and asking for small gifts, like flowers or gift cards, to prime their targets for larger requests. 

This experience was similar to Chris’s, who did send small amounts of money to some scammers without going further. In total, Chris estimates he lost around $190 to romance scammers last year.  

Rowe says that people should be cautious and talk to family and friends about the interactions they are having online as they may have advice or warnings.




How scammers get the money

“Good morning babe,” Chris messaged Hana one day. 

He had the day off work. This gave Hana plenty of time to work on him. They continued to chat online; she sent a sketch of a dress design she said she was working on and Chris complimented her work, then she said she was going to her friend’s house to help her create a Binance account.

Chris grew suspicious, but played it cool and waited a couple of hours before replying. When he did, Hana suggested he set up a Binance account too. Chris knew this was a red flag and said he wasn’t interested.

Chris told CHOICE that other scammers had offered to sell him nude pictures, which he didn’t buy. Those who did succeed in getting money out of him were the ones who built a connection. Preying on his kindness, Chris says they asked for help with ailing grandparents or overdue phone bills, and he bought gift cards to send to try and solve their problems. 

Preying on his kindness, they asked for help with ailing grandparents or overdue phone bills, and he bought gift cards to send to try and solve their problems

The ACCC’s Targeting Scams report, released in April 2023, found people with a disability lost $33.7 million to scams in 2022, up 71.2% from 2021. The report also found that people with a disability are more likely to send money in alternative ways – cryptocurrency, gift cards, plane tickets, even transferring home ownership. 

Money lost to romance scams by people with a disability increased by 8% between 2021 and 2022. 

Scams in general are underreported. Rowe thinks the underreporting of romance scams is “because people are embarrassed that they’ve fallen for it”. 

He says this is a reason to be vigilant and to help people feel comfortable that they’re not the only ones to have fallen for romance scams.




Moving on

Relationships Australia’s Relationship Indicators 2022 report found people with a disability had higher levels of loneliness than average. This means many may seek romance in an environment they feel comfortable in – such as the internet.

Once Hana had built Chris’s confidence, she quickly grew impatient. She laboured for three days, but not once did Chris express interest in “investing”. 

Two months passed with no messages between Chris and Hana. But in early April 2023 they reconnected. Hana told Chris about her cryptocurrency success; Chris updated Hana on his studies at TAFE. He ignored Hana’s investment advice, instead asking for relationship advice with someone he was interested in at TAFE. It became clear to Hana that Chris would not give her what she wanted.

Once Hana had built Chris’s confidence, she quickly grew impatient

“You are brave,” Hana wrote, “but you are afraid of investing your money.”

“You know I have a disability,” Chris reminded Hana. “I see things differently, and I have time trying to think about things.”

“Disability isn’t a problem anyway. If you see things differently you should prove to everyone that you think and act as a normal one.”

Chris deleted Hana. The following week he messaged ‘Katie’, another romance scammer. After that, he deleted Snapchat. His dad now gets a notification whenever he tries to re-download the app and gives Chris a concerned phone call.




Psychological effects

Chris says he wants to share his experience. “This needs to get out there because not many people with disability … know about these romance scammers [and] what their real intentions are.”

Whitty says, “What we know is that the victim’s upset and pain from psychological effects can be just as damaging as the financial effects.

“I’ve seen people lose very small amounts of money but commit suicide or attempt suicide. It may affect him for the rest of his life.”

Abuse of people with a disability is rife. They experience abuse, discrimination, probably more than any others … across our society

Geoff Rowe, CEO Aged and Disability Advocacy Centre

The Disability Royal Commission released its final report in September 2023, which revealed widespread abuse and exploitation experienced by Australians with a disability. It confirmed that people with a disability are more than twice as likely to report experiencing a romance scam, and to experience financial loss from dating and romance scams, than people without a disability. 

“Abuse of people with a disability is rife,” Rowe says. “They experience abuse, discrimination, probably more than any others … across our society.” 

He encourages people who have been affected to call the Disability Advocacy Support Helpline via the Disability Gateway on 1800 643 787 (ask to be connected to the helpline). tgHe says advocates can “help people unpack what’s going on” if they have been scammed and help them navigate the system.

Alex Soderlund, senior campaigns and policy adviser at CHOICE, says, “Scams have become increasingly sophisticated and harder to detect. It’s possible for anyone to be scammed, but when you are experiencing vulnerability – whether that’s an ongoing vulnerability, or more momentary stress, anxiety or sadness – you’re at an even greater risk of being scammed.

“Australia’s laws currently shift the burden onto consumers to detect and protect themselves from scams. This requires people to be constantly vigilant, which is an impossible and unfair expectation.

It’s possible for anyone to be scammed, but when you are experiencing vulnerability – whether that’s an ongoing vulnerability, or more momentary stress, anxiety or sadness – you’re at an even greater risk

CHOICE senior campaigns and policy adviser Alex Soderlund

Soderlund says that scams often occur due to failures from big businesses to protect their consumers. 

“Businesses like banks, telcos and digital platforms should be subject to strong rules requiring them to do what’s necessary to protect people from scams, backed by strong penalties and remedies for victims,” she says.

Chris is no longer looking for a relationship. “Not at the moment, I just want to focus on my studies, probably because I have been heartbroken too many times,” he says.

*Names have been changed.


Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.












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