Scammers typically create fake online profiles designed to lure you in. They may use a fictional name, or falsely take on the identities of real, trusted people such as military personnel, aid workers or professionals working abroad. Dating and romance scammers will express strong emotions for you in a relatively short period of time, and will suggest you move the relationship away from the website to a more private channel, such as phone, email or instant messaging.
They often claim to be from Australia or another western country, but travelling or working overseas. They may take months to build what may feel like the romance of a lifetime and may even pretend to book flights to visit you, but never actually come. They may also ask you to send pictures or videos of yourself, possibly of an intimate nature. Often the scammer will pretend to need the money for some sort of personal emergency. For example, they may claim to have a severely ill family member who requires immediate medical attention such as an expensive operation, or they may claim financial hardship due to an unfortunate run of bad luck such as a failed business or mugging in the street.
The scammer may also claim they want to travel to visit you, but cannot afford it unless you are able to lend them money to cover flights or other travel expenses. Sometimes the scammer will send you valuable items such as laptop computers and mobile phones, and ask you to resend them somewhere. They will invent some reason why they need you to send the goods but this is just a way for them to cover up their criminal activity.
Alternatively they may ask you to buy the goods yourself and send them somewhere. You might even be asked to accept money into your bank account and then transfer it to someone else. Warning - the above scenarios are very likely to be forms of money laundering which is a criminal offence.
Never agree to transfer money for someone else. Sometimes the scammer will tell you about a large amount of money or gold they need to transfer out of their country, and offer you a share of it. They will tell you they need your money to cover administrative fees or taxes.
Dating and romance scammers can also pose a risk to your personal safety as they are often part of international criminal networks. Scammers may attempt to lure their victims overseas, putting you in dangerous situations that can have tragic consequences. Regardless of how you are scammed, you could end up losing a lot of money. Online dating and romance scams cheat Australians out of millions every year.
The money you send to scammers is almost always impossible to recover and, in addition, you may feel long-lasting emotional betrayal at the hands of someone you thought loved you. If you think you have been scammed, report it to the website, app, or social media site where the scammer first approached you. Alexander's uniform and rank didn't match the role he said he had or the unit he said he was in.
There was no reason for him to be in the place where he claimed to be. If it hadn't been for the coincidence of our joint military connection, Beth probably wouldn't have mentioned him to me or anyone else - he had already spun a web of secrecy around his job.
Alexander contacted Beth on a dating platform, but he very quickly asked her to switch to a messaging app. Cyber-security expert Prof Alan Woodward says scammers much prefer to operate within a private environment, away from the chance of being seen by others - whether that's a direct messaging platform or a locked social media account.
I noticed myself that, after making my own Instagram account private, I was deluged with follow requests and private messages, all apparently from men, many of them claiming to have military positions. The military represents "authority, trust, romance" for many people, says New York Times reporter Jack Nicas, who made a documentary about romance scammers and their victims.
I wondered how the real people in the photos the scammers were using would feel if they knew, and I then got a small taste of it myself when someone set up a fake Instagram account using my pictures, and started messaging people - mainly men I believe - saying it was my "secret" space. I only found out when people started messaging me to ask what was going on. It was sickening, alarming and infuriating. I'll probably never know exactly what the "fake me" said and to whom.
It was all in the form of private messages from an account bearing my name and my face. Instagram deleted it when I complained, but declined to tell me whereabouts in the world it had been registered. Perhaps it was even Alexander, finding me via Beth's followers.
The platform said impersonating a person or organisation is against its guidelines, and that such accounts are deleted once it is made aware of them. A quick search reveals that there are plenty out there though. There are people who work to try to help romance scam victims, and they hear plenty of horror stories. She was later killed by her husband. Mr Nicas tracked Ms Holland's scammer down to Nigeria - where romance scammers are rife.
There young men work sometimes in groups, sometimes individually, and pretend to be both men and women online. He interviewed a man called Akinola Bolaji, a year-old Nigerian who said he had once been a "Yahoo Boy", as romance scammers are colloquially known. Five will comply. Out of the five, three may not have money. Two will have. Out of two, one may not be able to spend money. But one will surely send. He confessed to feeling guilty about the practice. Mr Bolaji claims to have stopped romance scamming because he is now in a genuine relationship with a lady in the US state of Georgia.
We only have his word for it. In the few weeks that Alexander was messaging my friend Beth, he did not ask for any cash.
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