How to keep yourself safe from internet dating scams

Written by Beverley Hadgraft for Australian Seniors. 

Chyrel Muzic had fainted again. She’d lost so much weight she was down to a skeletal 45kg and was clearly too unwell to continue her job as a council horticulturalist. Her boss took her aside. Chyrel had to quit.

The timing couldn’t have been worse. Chyrel, then 62, was already so broke she couldn’t afford to eat and was making a bowl of spaghetti last the week. She couldn’t pay her rent or car insurance and had a high-interest payday loan. 

The reason? She was being duped by a romance scammer. Worried and suspicious about the large withdrawals she’d made, her bank manager had visited her at work to talk to her about what was happening. The police had also spoken to her. But, says Chyrel, speaking two years later from her home near Rockhampton, Queensland, “It was as if I was in a trance. I was stressed to the max but I couldn’t stop myself.” 

How romance scammers hook people in online   

Chyrel’s scammer first contacted her on Facebook. “Back then I’d be friends with anyone,” she says. “We started chatting and within a few weeks he’d told me he loved me and suggested we move to a chatting app, Viber. He’d ring every day and we’d talk for up to an hour. 

The scammer told Chyrel he was an engineer in New York and after a few months started pretending he was working in Malaysia and needed money to pay fees. He asked Chyrel for a loan. “It’ll only be a few weeks. I’ll pay you straight back,” he promised.

“That’s how it started. He needed $7,000, then $4,000. I was a low-paid worker and it was killing me,” says Chyrel. In total she lost around $50,000. 

The scam had been continuing for two years when Chyrel got a call to say her “lover” was being held at a Malaysian airport and needed cash to be released. Something made her ring the American embassy in Malaysia.

“They told me: ‘You’re being scammed. There are no Americans being held at the airport.’ That’s when I realised, the police and bank were right. It was a scam.”

When she confronted her scammer he confessed he was actually a 29-year-old Nigerian. The photograph he’d used to fool Chyrel was that of retired United States Colonel Bryan Denny whose image has been used in romance scams on an industrial scale.

Now struggling to rebuild her life she says: “I’m a kind, compassionate person. I was easy prey but it can happen to anyone. I consider myself pretty switched on but they charm the life out of you. I don’t think I’ll ever fall in love again. I just don’t trust people any more.”

Australian seniors at most risk to fall prey to internet scammers 

Chyrel is certainly not alone. Australian Baby Boomers lose the highest amount on romance scams, with 1,470 people aged 45-64 reporting a total loss of more than $18 million – 63% of all losses reported last year, according to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. 

Dr Cassandra Cross, a criminologist from the Cyber Security Cooperative Research Centre at Queensland University of Technology hears hundreds of stories like Chyrel’s. She’s been researching romance scams and trying to put measures in place to prevent them since 2008 – and yet they’re still on the increase.

Sadly, once the scam has been committed, little can be done to prosecute the offenders as they’re overseas and have hidden behind false identities. However, Dr Cross has been encouraging financial institutions like Chyrel’s bank to increase their recognition of the problem, to be compassionate, and to improve processes to help stop the scam in its tracks.

The oldest person Dr Cross has interviewed was 80, and older people, generally, are more likely to be victims – mainly because they have easier access to money. They’re also susceptible to requests for secrecy. “They may feel uncomfortable telling their children they’re dating. They don’t want their capacity questioned.”

The fallout is heartbreaking. The criminologist has heard from a woman living out of her car after being disowned by her furious family. Others, suffering such anxiety on realising that a criminal knows so much about them, have moved home.

The six top ways to stay safe from internet romance scams  

  1. Consider the friendship route first. The Australian Seniors Modern Dating survey finds 44% of over 50s have made new friends through a dating website, rather than meeting a new spouse.
  2. Scammers don’t just target dating sites. They may use Instagram (8.8% of losses), Facebook (7.3%), Skype, Twitter and online games such as Words With Friends.
  3. The Australian Seniors survey shows 42% of respondents are aware of the risk of fake profiles. If suspicious of a photo, try an online image search using Google or search engine TinEye.
  4. Invite your new friend to video chat with you on a platform like Skype, Facebook Messenger or FaceTime. Scammers don’t ever want to talk “live”.
  5. Never send money or gift cards, or give personal information, including financial details, to anyone you haven’t met in person. 
  6. Be alert to poor English and grammar or outlandish stories, especially when they ask for money.

More than half of single Australian seniors use dating apps  

According to the Australian Seniors Series Modern Dating report, we found:

  • 40% of seniors typically meet potential partners online – but the majority (54%) are still introduced through friends.
  • 70% of seniors think dating apps and websites are for anyone, no matter their age.
  • 56% of the singles surveyed have used online dating sites.
  • $94 is the average acceptable amount of money to spend on a first date, ideally equally split between both.

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