Like all, love some, and trust no one.
As with many of the updates that might clog your newsfeed, the man’s Facebook status was cryptic and a little trite. It seemed to suggest meaning but, with its limited character count, was frustratingly vague.
‘Why do you say that, Jesse?’ typed Jette Jacobs, 67, a great-grandmother from Perth.
One year later, she was dead.
Jette was killed by Jesse Orowo Omokoh, a 28-year-old man from Nigeria. Prior to her death, she had been entangled romantically with him for four years, and, over the course of that time, had been defrauded out of more than $90,000.
When her story made headlines this year, it became clear the problem of scamming was bigger than the build-up of Viagra emails in your junk folder. From the fake romance snare to the ‘Nigerian money transfer’ (or 419 fraud), it’s a complex, omnipresent and potentially life-threatening issue.
Con artists can work on a small scale, collecting nominal amounts from ‘transport costs’ on fake Gumtree ads. They can seem silly, like the ‘Buddhist monk’ Bon Po who peddles a decidedly un-Zen ‘Prayer Wheel,’ promising to net you millions from games of chance. And they can be downright devious, like those who adopt a person’s identity to sell property without its owner even knowing – until it’s too late.
There’s only one thing these deceptions have in common. The fact that in the right circumstances, they can have the ability to fool even the educated, even the sceptics, even the rich. Even you.
Lonely hearts, easy marks
Jenny*, an eloquent woman in her early fifties, began navigating the world of online dating following the divorce of her husband of twenty-five years. Shortly after she joined a popular dating site, a suave-looking man with silver hair called Gary sent her a personal message. He told her that he was an engineer, that he was originally from America but was now based in a suburb just twenty minutes from her house in Perth. He was a widower; he had no children; his parents had passed. He was lonely, but he was sweet – he opened up about his personal and religious beliefs, and would always sign off ‘Hopeless romantic, Gary’.
They took their relationship off the site, communicating via instant messaging and phone calls (his accent seemed a curious amalgamation of nationalities). They were unable to meet in person, because shortly after connecting he had to fly to the UK to finish up a work contract. When he returned, he promised, they’d “never be apart again”.
Within two and a half weeks of meeting, he told her a transfer of his money had been delayed and he needed $10,000 for a work project. She transferred him the sum, plus some. Then there was another delay. Another transfer.
She questioned how a high-earning successful man did not have any business sense – let alone a bank account – but she trusted what he said. “I was simply looking for companionship after my divorce and never thought there would be such cruel con artists looking to capitalise on loneliness,” she says. She sent him a six-figure sum. And then she twigged.
In Western Australia last year, more than $9 million was lost to ‘relationship scams’ like Jenny’s and Jette’s, in which an individual or a crime network targets someone on an online dating site, builds a ‘relationship’ with instant messages and phone calls, then concocts a story as to why they need money.
According to David Hillyard of Consumer Protection, who works closely with these
types of cases, Jenny’s story is a textbook example of romance fraud. Though love mightn’t know reason, experienced con men certainly do, and approach their victims with systematic calculation.
“It’s the same old story,” Hillyard says. “They’re of either American or English or European extraction, working in an industry – oil or mining or the US marines – and are off-shore. Once upon a time, they’d use the ‘Russian Bride’-type photo.”
Now, they know better, he explains, realising that people grow suspicious when a perfect ten (who wouldn’t give them a second glance at a bar) seems to falls in cyber love-at-first-sight. Now scammers use believable-looking photos of men and women. One US army general, with a copper moustache and an affable Rat-in-a-Hat grin, has had his image plastered on hundreds, perhaps thousands, of fake profiles.
They’re also eerily switched on to a person’s particular psychology and weaknesses. “Unfortunately, most people are too honest and disclose everything that they’ve been through,” says Hillyard. “Scammers pick up on that and start tuning all the facts that make them vulnerable. They see someone who has a hearing disability, so they say, ‘So do I. I want to be your partner, and I understand’.”
“You’ve got an individual who’s putting up a profile on a website, they’re putting themselves out there and saying, ‘This is what I like, this is what I’m looking for in a partner’,” says Cassandra Cross, an expert on online fraud from the University of Technology Queensland. “It’s easy for the offender, on the other hand, to go through and pretend to have the same interests and wants.”
After establishing initial contact on the dating site, scammers are quick to take the relationship offline, suggesting switching to i-messaging, phone calls or Skype, so the deception is more difficult to trace. They also ensure the relationship is a relative slow burn, letting feelings of love and trust marinate before they skin the victim for all they’re worth.
“Jenny’s story was a bit unusual in that she committed to sending money very quickly,” says Hillyard. “Usually, they’re groomed over many weeks and months, and in some cases over a year, by email, by Facebook, by telephone calls, by Skype. By then of course they think they know them, they trust them. Why wouldn’t they?”
Invest now, pay later
Investment scams, like romance scams, offer a high return of emotional damage and debt. In 2013, they were responsible for fleecing West Australians out of more than $4.7 million. Often perpetrated via telemarketing under the guise of an industry expert offering advice, investment scams can also take place on the Internet, through the mail, and even face to face.
The nature of these scams, which tend to elicit frenzied excitement and a fear of missing out, can mean crippling financial losses for their victims… but it also means that victims can unintentionally become criminals themselves.
“Victims should be mindful that, by being involved in these investment deals, they may inadvertently be taking part in an illegal operation, exposing them to potential prosecution,” says Commissioner for Consumer Protection Anne Driscoll. “It may also be the case they are being used by criminals as money mules and innocently assisting a money-laundering operation.”
Though scammers can target people randomly, they do their research to capitalise on a person’s vulnerability. “The investment might be targeted on something they have a passion about or an interest in,” says Cross. “We have such a large digital footprint, we all put so much information out about us that offenders can use.”
It can be difficult to detect who is a real investment expert and who is a fraud, because criminals employ sophisticated tactics and adopt likeable personas. “We all think they’re nasty people you see in movies, with three-day growth and a bad accent,” says Hillyard. “But they’re not. They’re pleasant and all about tricking you into thinking that they’re the genuine article.”
Take the case of Boyanup local Bryan*. Four years ago, the 56-year-old met some industry insiders online who presented him with an investment opportunity too good to resist. They told him he could recover lost funds in the United Kingdom – £32 million ($58.2 million), to be precise – if he set up various investments in Australia, and covered the cost of fees and taxes to complete the deal, which involved turning expired bank notes back into useable currency.
It all seemed legitimate. They had a sophisticated website, and provided him with a credit card as well as a bank account, with which he could withdraw amounts of money from his investment. He even saw the method with his own eyes – he flew to Kuala Lumpur and Dubai, and watched how the expired bank notes, coated in a white substance, could be made useable again by washing them with special chemicals.
But for all its byzantine intricacy, the investment turned out to be a sham, one that cost Bryan a whopping $2 million – the largest ever scam loss in Western Australia. Now, he faces losing his house, and his retirement plans are postponed to the undeterminable future.
Real estate, fake sales
Returning from an overseas journey can be bittersweet, but there’s always great comfort in coming home: the feeling of sleeping in your own bed, that familiar house smell, being able to make the 2am toilet dash without crashing into a wall. But for one Ballajura family, who returned from working overseas in Nigeria, it was the stuff of nightmares – they found a new owner living in their house. Con artists purported to be living in Nigeria had sold the house for $400,000 – the original owners, who were renting out their house while away, were none the wiser.
Theirs isn’t the only case of its type in Western Australia. In 2010, Wembley Downs retiree Roger Mildenhall returned from South Africa to find his Karrinyup investment property had been sold by scammers. A day after Roger’s story made papers, another near-identical fraud emerged: doctor Peter D’Alessandro was just days off settling a West Perth apartment he’d bought for $775,000, when the original owner, also living in South Africa, found out about the scam and brought it to a halt.
“Real estate scams often involve an absent owner from WA,” says Hillyard. “Scammers find out about the details of the home management, and contact the real estate agent saying, ‘These are my new details, this is my new bank account’, so they can take over the identity of the property owners. After a while, they give instructions for the company to sell the property.”
“It’s certainly happening more now than it did before,” says Peter Cutajar, legal counsel for insurer First Title. “It’s not just in West Africa: organised crime groups are working from all over the world. There’s even locally based ones. Crime is a copycat-type thing, whatever is working somewhere will catch on here.
“It happens particularly when you’re an investor and you don’t live in the home, so you’d be more vulnerable to it happening without you knowing,” says Cutajar. Not having a mortgage poses another risk. “When there is no mortgage on the house, the bank doesn’t need to be involved. It becomes a very complicated process. You could be in court for years.”
On a smaller scale, confidence tricksters are stealing photos of houses from real estate websites and posting them to sites like Gumtree, posing as homeowners seeking renters. Los Angeles native Claire Lopaty, who moved to Perth to nanny, fell victim to this strain of scam when she posted a Gumtree ad, looking for a place to rent with two friends. Promptly, a man called Brian Place answered her ad, sending photos of a property he claimed couldn’t be shown until he received bond money.
Interestingly, Brian, who claimed to be an independent realtor, agreed to meet face to face. “He looked like he was late for a court case or something, he looked like a mess,” Lopaty says. “But at the time we thought he just looked like an Aussie guy, super casual.” At the meeting, he showed them a passport, which Lopaty now believes is fake, and asked for them to transfer money so he could verify it with the ‘Australian Bond Board’. “It sounds ridiculous now but I don’t know anything about real estate, especially Australian real estate,” says Lopaty. Between the three of them, they transferred him a sum of about $1000, which they never saw again.
In 2012, after statistics showed West Australians were losing $1.5 million per month in advance-fee frauds, WA Police formed a taskforce to tackle the problem. “Project Sunbird kicked off because we had an increasing amount of people reporting to the fraud squad that they’d lost money,” says David Hillyard.
Earlier this year, Nigerian authorities spent two weeks in Perth with Project Sunbird to work on the Jette Jacobs case. A man has since been arrested.
In February of this year, Jenny made West Australian history by becoming the first scam victim to have money returned – 40 per cent of the six-figure sum she lost. Given that it’s notoriously difficult to return funds to the victim of a con trick, particularly when it was perpetrated by wire, Project Sunbird tries to halt the deceptions in their tracks.
Officers scan for abnormal transactions, such as a wire transfer from an Australian name to an African name, then write to that household with a letter of advice. “Six out of ten stop sending money,” says Hillyard. “To the others, we send a more detailed letter saying you need to talk to us, which knocks out the four remaining.” If they’ve sent over $100,000 and still won’t stop, the police pay them a visit. But at that point, the victims have invested their money, their time, and sometimes their heart in the deception. “They can’t afford not to believe it.”
It could be you…
“I can only blame myself for being so blind,” says Bryan. “I felt very tragic and stupid, and quite ashamed,” says Jenny. “I kept on thinking, ‘How could I have fallen for this?’”
These are common refrains of the scammed. According to Bill Robinson of Relationships WA, the counselling service to which Project Sunbird refers its victims, “there can be a real self-critical, self-hating, ‘How could I be so stupid?’ feeling”. But the evidence shows stupidity has nothing to do with it. In fact, Oxford University researchers recently concluded intelligent people were more likely to trust others. Another study examining romance scams showed that apart from higher-than-average idealism, no personality traits increased your risk. “You can’t argue victims are stupid or greedy,” says Cassandra Cross. “A lot of victims are highly educated people, who have managed to avoid fraudulent emails and requests hundreds if not thousands of times before.”
The Internet can create a false sense of security, say experts. “When we’re out, our antennae are up, we’re aware that people sometimes get robbed or mugged or assaulted,” says Bill Robinson. “But when we’re home, in front of a computer, we assume we’re safe.” Plus, online there are no visual cues like body language, which we need to form a ‘gut’ reaction to a person, says Cross.
Says David Hillyard, neither gender is more susceptible. Nor is age a factor – victims can be in their twenties or their eighties. But there is a common theme “They’re at a crossroads or low point in their life, and they’re particularly vulnerable at that time to being targeted.”
Even if the victim isn’t isolated, the scammer will work to ensure they are. “Offenders will try to isolate the victims from their family and friends, saying ‘we have to keep this a secret’, for whatever reason,” says Cross. “Then, when the victim starts to get suspicious they don’t have anyone they can go to for help, and they’ll be blamed for their actions.”
Compounding victim guilt is ‘victim blaming’, the suggestion that victims are greedy or gullible (the phrase ‘you can’t cheat an honest man’ springs to mind). According to Cross, victim blaming can have devastating consequences. People become afraid to tell their stories, which exacerbates victimisation, and can lead to severe emotional problems – sometimes even suicide.
“In terms of online fraud the offenders that are interacting with victims are highly skilled people,” she says. “People need to acknowledge that everyone has a weakness and vulnerability and if you’re targeted in the right way at the right time, we could all become victims.
“It could happen to anyone.”
* Jenny and Bryan’s surnames have been withheld.
How to protect yourself from scams
- Meet people face-to-face (although be sure to take precautions, like meeting in a public place). This rules out anyone communicating from the other side of the world. It also allows your intuition to work, reading body language and other visual cues.
- Be aware scammers are often excellent at creating legitimate-looking websites and other documents, such as passports, birth and death certificates, visas and certificates of title.
- Google is your friend. Though scammers are skilled, they’re not particularly original – they’ll often repeat fake names and photos. A quick Google search of a name can turn up some damning information. A reverse Google image search on a photo from an online profile can show where it’s been used before.
- Most social media sites give you an option to control your security settings. Always make your profile private and only accept connection requests from people you know personally.
- Don’t volunteer online what you wouldn’t in real life. “Unless you’re prepared to go to the bus stop and scribble it there, why would you put it on the Internet?” says David Hillyard.
- Destroy documents. According to Peter Cutajar, people should shred them instead of throwing them in the trash, where they could be intercepted.
- When making social media or online dating profiles, be vague. “Give generic information about your interests, don’t be specific,” says Hillyard. Specifics make it far easier for scammers to form a fake rapport.
- Never give anyone remote access to your computer. Scammers have been cold-calling people, claiming to be from companies like Microsoft Support. They ask for access to your computer to fix a tech problem… and proceed to mine your personal info.