Melbourne single mum Kate* thought she knew what a scammer looked like.
When she first joined up to the online dating site Zoosk, she was immediately hit on by a man who was “blatantly obvious” in his efforts to scam her, she says.
He asked her to move their chat elsewhere almost immediately, sent her an explicit video and requested one in return.
It was all good material for a laugh when she caught up with friends.
Then came the man she knew as Gabriel, who she also met on Zoosk last year.
“When I look back on it now, I can see all the obvious things and that’s the hard part,” Kate said.
“I’m not a stupid person, I’m actually really smart – but this guy was so good.”
Kate and Gabriel spent months just chatting about their lives.
He told Kate he was an engineer from France who was now living in the Melbourne suburb of Canterbury.
His wife had died when his two daughters were small, he said, and the children were living with his mother in London so he could continue to work.
Like the first guy, Gabriel also suggested they move their conversation to WhatsApp, but not before Kate felt like she knew him.
She had also done her own research on Gabriel.
She did a reverse image search of his photos, and found him on Facebook.
His posts on Facebook went back years. She would later discover it was a hacked account.
Their conversations on WhatsApp were a mix of cutesy flirtation and the mundane nitty-gritty of days at work and home during COVID-19 lockdowns.
There were lots of selfies and they talked over the phone on WhatsApp.
“I was smitten with him. If you’ve ever heard a Frenchman talk to you, hell, it was so hot,” she says.
Pleas for money begin
In December last year – three months after they first met – Gabriel told Kate he had to fly to London quickly.
His daughter needed surgery for appendicitis and he wanted to be there with her.
After he arrived, Gabriel told Kate he was having trouble with his bank.
The flight was so last-minute, he said, the bank picked up he was in another country and blocked him from withdrawing money.
After the surgery, Gabriel asked Kate if he could borrow $5000 for three plane tickets home so he and his daughters could spend Christmas with her.
With his bank account supposedly not working, Gabriel convinced Kate to buy some cryptocurrency and transfer it to his crypto account.
He sent her what appeared to be screenshots of the plane tickets he had bought.
With Gabriel seemingly on his way home, Kate was getting excited about meeting him in person for the first time.
But then Gabriel claimed there was another hiccup.
While in Singapore, his daughter had tested positive to COVID-19 and they needed to spend some time in quarantine, missing their connecting flight.
Gabriel needed more money to buy extra plane tickets, which Kate gave him.
Finally, he sent word they were boarding their flight home.
“I spent an hour driving to the airport to meet him and paid $50 for parking,” Kate said.
“I sat in that airport terminal and waited for the plane to land.
“About 45 minutes after the plane touched down and everyone had come out of the terminal I just got that sinking feeling.”
Gabriel and his daughters never showed up.
When Gabriel finally contacted Kate, he told her he was caught up in customs at Melbourne Airport.
Customs officers were demanding $5000 in tax for an antique piece of jewellery he bought, he said.
Kate said she now knew in her heart she was being scammed, but part of her was still holding onto a tiny amount of hope.
She sent $1750 to a bank account which Gabriel told her belonged to the customs agent.
Luckily for Kate, the transfer was picked up by her bank – NAB – who told her the account she was trying to deposit the money into had been associated with fraudulent activity.
All up, Kate said she still lost around $11,000 to the scammer, as well as her dignity.
“It’s a kick in the guts,” she said.
“It’s only money, but that money when you are a single parent on a sole income is super important.”
While her bank initially refused to refund any of the money, it later agreed to repay $6000 after she contacted dispute resolution service the Australian Financial Complaints Authority.
Kate said she hoped sharing her story would help prevent others from falling victim to similar scams.
“What I would like to say to other people is do not give anyone money under any circumstances,” she said.
“As much as he might have the sexiest French accent and look really hot without a shirt on, you’ve got to treat everyone you meet on these dating sites as a potential scammer.
“Make sure you meet them in person, and even then don’t give them any money.”
Billions lost to scams
This week is national Scam Awareness Week, an event which the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s Scamwatch says aims to empower people with the knowledge of how to avoid being ripped off.
Australians lost a staggering $2 billion to scams last year. This year, the combined figure could reach as high as $4 billion, the agency says.
“We know scammers are relentlessly targeting Australians,” ACCC deputy chair Delia Rickard said.
“Research commissioned by the ACCC shows that 96 per cent of the population was exposed to a scam in the five years to 2021.
“Half of the survey’s respondents were contacted weekly or daily by scammers, a figure expected to rise given current cyber security concerns.”
Dating and romance scams account for the second highest category of losses reported to Scamwatch, after investment scams.
So far this year, Australians have lost more than $29 million to romance scammers.
The most common way for scammers to contact new victims is through dating sites and social media.
‘I’ve got a kind heart’
Like Kate, Melbourne electrician David* found his attempts to find love on dating websites broke his bank balance as well as his heart.
The 65-year-old joined the dating service Silver Singles before the pandemic hit and was quickly approached by a woman.
“She told me she was a widow and was living in an apartment in Footscray,” he said.
The woman told David she was not a member on the dating service and gave him her email address so they could chat without her paying to join up.
Chatting on email, David says the woman sent photos of herself and her daughter.
She told him she was a gem dealer.
The pair made plans to meet a few months into their online relationship, but then the woman told David she needed to make a quick trip overseas.
A deal on some gems had suddenly come up in Turkey that was too good to miss out on, she told him.
Then came the plea for money, with the woman claiming customs officers were demanding tax on the gems.
“I thought I wasn’t being too silly,” David said.
“I knew her address, and had her photos.
“She also sent me a photo of her passport which matched the photos she sent.”
All up, David said he transferred about $50,000 into a bank account for her.
Police later told him the passport shown in the photo had been falsified.
But it wouldn’t be the last time David would fall victim to scammers.
A few months later, he said he met another woman on a different dating service for older singles.
The second woman said she was a divorcee who lived in Melbourne.
She also told David she was a gem dealer and he again fell victim to a similar scam, losing about $10,000.
“I feel foolish and stupid for being so gullible,” he said.
“I’ve got a kind heart, I suppose, and a charitable nature and I’ve just been ripped off.”
David said people should be aware of the warning signs if they are using dating services with one, in particular, being a big red flag.
“If someone asks you to communicate with them outside of the dating apps, they are most likely a scammer,” he said.
*Names have been changed.