Shock at $160,000 online dating ripoff

Look before you leap in online love, the family of a terminally ill Christchurch woman is advising after she lost more than $160,000 in a dating scam.

Liz lost the money between 2007 and 2009 after meeting someone claiming to be an engineer from Scotland named Bruce McDonald. Her family have asked for her surname to be withheld.

Liz, 60, has a brain tumour and is unable to recall details of the scam, but her son, Daniel, said it was likely his mother was targeted on a dating website or forum while in a vulnerable state after separating from her husband.

Surviving emails between Liz and Bruce McDonald detail their romance and the various reasons why he asked for money.

"This Bruce was staying in a hotel and needed money for accommodation fees. There's some talk of ... having a young daughter who needs money for schooling.

"There's also discussion about airfare money to get to New Zealand."

Between June and November 2007, Liz sent almost $140,000 - the proceeds of an inheritance she had recently received - to bank accounts in Nigeria.

After that, she continued to send smaller amounts, between $50 and $100 each week, until the end of 2009.

In total, she sent 166 monetary transactions through her local Western Union, her son said.

"She eventually, even though it took two years, must have come to the realisation [it was a scam]."

Liz lived by herself and kept the affair secret from her family until it was discovered two weeks ago. The most they heard about was her regular contact with online friends, Daniel said.

"I only discovered this actually happened in the last fortnight, basically. With my mother's ill health ... family members started to organise financial issues."

Money sent through Western Union was untraceable, so the chance of recovering any was "close to zilch". With her brain tumour progressing, Daniel said the funds would have been put toward his mother's residential care.

"There was never any indication money was changing hands. It was all a shock to everyone."

This week is Fraud Awareness Week, raising public knowledge of scams and their frequent targeting of older people.

Almost half of the $4 million reportedly scammed from Kiwis last year was lost in dating set-ups, which were often the toughest to identify and cost the most.

The 165 victims in 2012 lost an average of almost $17,000, with one Taranaki man losing more than $800,000.


The warning signs

- Poor English grammar and spelling: Especially if they claim to be from a country where English is spoken as a first language.

- Stories not adding up: As scammers often have several targets on the go, details of their back-story often get muddled, or they may appear to be answering questions you never asked.

- Immediate responses: Be concerned if you get quick replies frequently, especially if you have not discussed when you will be online.

- Early professions of love, and a sob story: Especially if the person has no-one else in their life who can help but you.

- Early requests to chat off-site: It's always safer to chat through large, reputable dating sites, which use security checks to try to protect the safety of their users.

- Stereotypical profiles: Commonly, fake profiles pretend to be an attractive, mixed ethnicity, Christian woman in her early 30s, or a professional man in his 40s looking for a younger companion. Requests to send money through untraceable agencies.

What you can do

If you think you've been targeted by a scammer, contact your bank or money transfer agency immediately to cancel any transactions.

Consumer Affairs asks all concerned people to contact it, and help to warn others of potential scams.

The Press