“They’re places where you’re not going there looking for love and you’re certainly not expecting to have a romance start up, so your guard’s not up,” she said.
Ms Rickard said the number of victims and the size of the financial losses had been increasing over the years, possibly because there were a lot more scammers seeing the opportunity and getting in the game. In 2018, there were 3981 reports of romance scams, with losses of $24.6 million, in Australia.
In the past, the scams typically involved the victims transferring money through online banking or wire transfers. This still accounted for about a third of the losses but it was closely followed by other payment methods such as iTunes, Steam and Google Play gift cards and even cryptocurrency such as Bitcoin.
Romance scams accounted for a fifth of all scams reported to the ACCC’s Scamwatch, while Ms Rickard said another growth area was fake business invoices.
Ms Rickard said the scammers used “the same playbook” of psychological techniques to manipulate their victims they always had.
Typically the scammers were quick to move targets off the platform to reduce the risk of detection, quick to declare their love and very attentive and flattering. They usually had a reason as to why they were overseas and could not meet in person – though in a few rare cases, they did meet their victims in person to win their trust.
She warned scammers would be especially active for Valentine’s Day this week, sending flowers and small gifts to express their supposed love.
“They really do go all out to win that trust, but when they do, they will ask for money,” Ms Rickard said.
“They’ll say they need access to the funds for the business or an operation – if it’s a man they will usually be divorced or widowed with a child who needs an operation.”
People aged 45 to 64 were the most likely to be scammed, with 1470 reports and more than $18 million in losses. Women accounted for 55 per cent of victims but three quarters of the financial losses.
Ms Rickard said the platforms were getting better at responding to scams, though “none of them are exemplary”. The platforms were good at removing scams identified by the ACCC but she would like them to be more proactive and also provide better internal dispute resolution and well-publicised contact details.
“It is a constant game of cat-and-mouse,” she said. “What we really want to see is the platform and the apps get better at identifying these people and kicking them off themselves.”
Caitlin Fitzsimmons is a senior writer for The Sun-Herald, focusing on social affairs.