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.