Kiwis lost more than $600 million to internet criminals in the past year and the biggest losers were those looking for love, says NetSafe, a leading educational advocate for cybersafety.
The Taranaki Daily News approached NetSafe for advice on online dating scams after it was revealed Alan Young, a former finance manager at the Taranaki Regional Council, was left dateless and destitute after being conned out of $862,400 by Australian dating agency True Love Corp.
Mr Young signed up with True Love Corp in 2006 and was lured into spending $10,000 upgrading his status with the service.
He fell for a woman named "Angie Jovic" who turned out to be Hollie Veall, a director of True Love Corp, and spent more than $400,000 providing "assistance" to her.
Mr Young also spent hundreds of thousands to upgrade his membership after she promised she would repay the money and they would marry.
NetSafe operations manager Lee Chisholm said it was hard to know the real extent of the romance scams.
"Not everyone reports being duped," she said.
"Dating and romance scams account for the biggest amount of money we see going out of the country."
Mrs Chisholm said anecdotal evidence showed people looking for love were quick to trust those they met online. "They want to trust them and they form an emotional connection quite quickly."
Scammers were very clever and could often be quite patient.
"They play that emotional connection and then they come up with a story that involves a bit of money and a bit more money and a bit more money and ‘I'll soon be over, I'll marry you and we will live happily ever after'."
Mrs Chisholm said the stories would often involve tragedy and promises to repay the money.
The requests often began with small amounts but soon escalated and could involve hundreds of thousands of dollars.
"That's huge, the one that was reported by you."
However, there were a few things people could do to keep themselves safe, she said.
As soon as someone asked for money it should raise suspicion. "No matter how genuine it sounds it's a red flag."
People should be on the lookout for any kind of discrepancy in people's stories, including bad spelling or poor grammar and be alert to those living overseas.
"They often say ‘I'm a New Zealander but I'm working over here at the moment but I'm going to move back'.
"If you want a committed long-term relationship it's probably good to look for someone in the same country as you and to meet them pretty early on."
Mrs Chisholm said the old adage "if it sounds too good to be true, it usually is" was good advice to keep in mind.
She urged anyone scammed to report it. "That gives us a better picture of what's happening and we can then help others from potentially falling into the same trap."
Online fraud can be reported at theorb.org.nz, a site developed by NetSafe to offer New Zealanders a simple, secure way to report concerns about online incidents.
- Taranaki Daily News