Really unlucky in love — dating website scams
New ACCC guidelines to protect consumers of online dating sites from scammers.
If you think that the only people vulnerable to online scams are retirees lacking a certain internet savviness or gullible folk willingly to part with sensitive financial information to the Nigerian Central Bank, think again.
In response to a significant increase in scams perpetrated online through dating and romance (D&R) websites, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has released voluntary best practice guidelines to assist website operators with an aim towards a high standard of consumer protection across the whole online dating industry.
The message from the ACCC is that anyone can fall for a scam.
In 2011, the ACCC received 2100 reports of D&R website scams, with consumers reporting $21 million in losses.
Online scammers create false profiles on popular D&R websites or chat rooms, sometimes taking months to develop relationships and build trust with their victims who are legitimate users of the D&R website. After establishing the connection with the victim, the scammers typically request money or personal information as part of a narrative designed to defraud innocent online consumers.
With the money lost to online scams being almost impossible to recover, this is a significant problem for Australian consumers and one that website operators can do more to curtail.
The new ACCC guidelines propose a flexible set of actions for implementation by D&R website operators to improve their response to scams.
The guidelines recommend that D&R website operators establish robust vetting systems to identify scammers and to monitor common behavioural characteristics of scammers. The ACCC encourages site operators to be on the look-out for common phrases and profile pictures used in scammer profiles, IP addresses of people accessing dating sites from overseas, proxy servers which avoid IP detection, and an unusual amount of messages sent by users in a short time.
The ACCC recommends that D&R sites display clear warning messages in prominent locations on the sites to facilitate maximum exposure to users and that site operators establish complaint handling procedures, including an easily accessible mechanism to report a scam, together with comprehensive support services. The guidelines call for the institution of a policy of referral of scamming complaints to the ACCC, and users should be reminded to contact their financial intuitions if they have already sent money or disclosed personal information. Further, the ACCC recommends that once an incident is reported, D&R website operators should notify other users who have been contacted by that person.
Common features of scams are that scammers encourage users to communicate in forums outside of the dating website where they are introduced to legitimate users and that after a relationship has been established, scammers request for money for all sorts of things including medical treatment, business proposals or flights to visit the victim.
While some scammers may express strong romantic feelings after only a short period of time, the ACCC points out that some scams are sophisticated and are orchestrated by international crime networks, where scammers are patient, waiting months before attempting to scam victims.
The ACCC encourages D&R website users to identify when someone’s profile picture looks different to their description or if what someone says about themselves does not match their website profile. These may be signs that the profile has been created by a fake user. Of course, these may also be signs that Darryl from Maroubra is not in fact 35 years old and did not think it wise to mention to Danielle from Kempsey (who enjoys jazzercise) that he has a passion for cicada shells.
The key take away message — D&R website consumers must be aware of the increasing number of scammers that monitor and operate on these sites and never disclose personal or financial information online without strict security protections.
If you are a victim of a D&R website scam, you can report it to the ACCC through SCAMwatch.
If you would like more information about the ACCC guidelines please contact us.