Nigerian scammers are back with a vengeance, more sophisticated than before and using online dating and auction sites to rip off tens of millions of dollars a year from vulnerable Australians. Eileen Ormsby reports.
EVEN our computer recognises when something is too good to be true, so we don't see them so much any more those emails offering untold wealth if we help a dignitary move a fortune from a hostile country, or notifying us of massive winnings in lotteries we don't recall entering. And for the few that don't go straight to junk mail we hit "delete" without another thought.
Why, then, are tens of thousands of Australians still losing more than $55 million a year to mass-marketed advance fee fraud (scams tricking people into paying money upfront to secure a financial or emotional benefit at a later date), more commonly known as "Nigerian" or "419" scams?
Some may think it could never happen to us because we, and our computers, have become more sophisticated. But, then, so have the conmen.
"Scammers are constantly evolving and finding new ways to trick victims into parting with their money," says Ken Gamble, of Internet Fraud Watchdog.
The scammers who used to send us the emails are now finding their victims through legitimate dating and auction sites. In what have become known as romance scams, once the fraudsters hook their victim they use voice-changing devices to hide Nigerian accents or employ sophisticated software to make victims believe they are video chatting with attractive models.
Last year, consumer watchdog the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission received reports that put money lost to romance scams at more than $22 million, with an average loss of $21,000 per victim.
In romance scams, victims meet fraudsters through online dating sites and part with money to buy airfares, secure early discharge from the army or help a sick relative of a person the victim believes is in love with them.
The $5000 that Meredith Hoarey lost was all the money she had. She believed the man she had met online was an American soldier based in Iraq. In telephone and internet conversations over nine months, "Sgt Zachary Smertyn" convinced Hoarey, 46, of his intention to be discharged from the US Army so that he could come to Australia to marry her.
His alleged commander told her via webcam that Smertyn could not be discharged until certain expenses had been covered. He sent her a variety of official-looking documents to "prove" his claims, as well as a "Military Wife Registration Form".
Believing it was the only way she could be with the man she had fallen in love with, Hoarey, who lives in NSW, sold her car to cover the expenses. Soon after, she received a bill for $3000 for a weapon allegedly lost by Smertyn, which she was told had to be repaid before he could be discharged.
"That's when my whole world came crumbling down I knew I'd been had," she says. "I felt like part of me had died. How could I be so dumb?"
Miriam Munro* knows this feeling only too well. She sent $60,000 to a man she believed to be an American businessman called "Dayne", whom she had met on a well-known internet dating site.
She had heard of Nigerian scams, but she had no reason to believe she was being subjected to one because Dayne told her he lived just an hour away from her home in Western Australia. He even gave her a local phone number to contact him on, but then said he couldn't meet her because he was travelling on business. In reality, the "local" number diverted to Nigeria.
In retrospect, he fell for Munro very quickly. "They love bomb you. They send emails, they send love poems, they talk to you on Messenger, they ring you two or three times a day," she says.
It is easy to dismiss victims of 419 scams as stupid or gullible, but Munro comes across as neither of these she is in her 50s, is articulate and holds down a professional job. What she was, she readily admits, is "lonely and vulnerable and going through some personal strife".
Gone are the days of emails full of laughably broken English and absurd claims of outrageous rewards for very little effort on the part of the victim.
"I was totally convinced I was talking to an American girl and an American guy," Munro says. Her conviction was not unreasonable, given she spoke to him on the phone and communicated with both him and his "daughter" over a webcam. "I would talk to them all the time."
But the voices and webcam videos were fakes and it turned out all communication was coming from Nigeria, still a hub for online fraudsters. Increasingly sophisticated in the running of the scams, they work in shifts and use voice changers to give themselves an American accent.
Sophisticated programs, such as that offered by CamDecoy, provide videos of models that can be manipulated by the scammers to appear as though they are interacting with the victim on a webcam. Even more sinisterly, fraudsters use footage of unsuspecting members of webcam chat rooms that has been recorded surreptitiously over several weeks.
In both cases, the scammers claim there is a problem with sound but have full control over the footage. They can pause it, type when the person on screen is typing, or jump to a clip of the model waving, laughing or otherwise reacting as the victim would expect them to.
For example, Dayne bombarded Munro with flowers, cards, telephone calls and webcam chats. "He said everything I wanted to hear, I needed to hear," she says.
After a few months, the requests for money began. First he needed a loan when he became stranded in Ireland. Then he offered to invest some of Munro's funds into his successful business. Believing his professions of love and that he yearned to hurry back to Australia to be with her, she handed over $60,000.
Finally, unwilling to wait any longer, Munro decided to go to Dubai to meet him. The night before she was due to leave, he phoned her. "He said his daughter had been in an accident and he couldn't meet me at Dubai airport. And then, I just knew."
She was devastated. Not only had she lost money, she had also lost what she thought was the love of her life and her ability to trust people.
Donald Thomson, a forensic psychologist at Deakin University, says the impact on the interpersonal relationships of victims who commit themselves emotionally as well as financially is greater than those who are victims of a purely financial scam. "They can separate themselves from it, but the person who has been a victim of a romantic scam has given all of themselves."
Meanwhile, "The Psychology of Scams", a study commissioned by the UK Office of Fair Trading, shows people who have already been a victim of a scam are consistently more likely to show renewed interest in contact from fraudsters. One trick of conmen is the "secondary scam" in which they contact a victim some time after they realise they have been scammed and pretend to be lawyers, government officials or police from the scammer's country.
This happened to Munro. "Sean King", whom she chatted with on another site, told her he had also been the victim of a scammer. He said the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, a Nigerian law enforcement agency that investigates 419 scams, had helped him and a friend to recover their money. Her local police had already suggested she get in touch with the EFCC, but "I emailed them and never got a reply," she says. Sean told her he would get the employee who had helped him to contact her. "So he [the EFCC employee] emailed me and then it was all on again," Munro says.
The emails had the same EFCC logo as she had seen on the site to which the Australian police had directed her. "They said because such a large amount of money was due to me, I had to get anti-money-laundering and insurance certificates from the bank. All the documents that came to me looked totally believable," she says. "They named the guy who scammed me and said they had his IP address. It was very clever. I was sucked in."
Thousands of dollars later for a variety of "fees" and "certificates", Munro realised she was being scammed again.
While romance scams target the lonely and vulnerable, usually people over 50, another type of scam targets the young and naive. The ACCC research showed an increase in "high volume scams" that catch more victims, but for smaller amounts of money.
Brittany Smith, who lives in Melbourne, was just 17 years old when she lost her life's savings trying to buy a car from a well-known Australian car sales website. When she found one she liked, the seller told her that the site would hold payment in escrow until she confirmed she was happy with the car. Smith soon received an email on the site's letterhead.
"It looked legitimate," she says of the email, which contained both hers and the seller's information. "It had contact details for a site representative and said I had to give it $7000, which they would hold on to until the car was delivered and I told them to release it."
Four days later, she still hadn't heard from the seller and was unable to contact the "representative". So Smith called the website to get her money back and that's when she learnt she had been scammed. "They told me they have no communication whatever with buyers or owners all they do is run the site."
Like most scams, payment was made through Western Union. Smith knows now that Western Union should never be used to transfer money to people unknown. "In hindsight, when you look at it, you think, yeah, there were some alarm bells but at the time it seemed so legitimate."
She contacted the Australian Federal Police but was told there was little it could do. The ability of scammers to operate in a variety of countries means that few offenders are arrested and prosecuted.
A representative of NSW Police who is responsible for Meredith Hoarey's case says on a cost/benefit analysis it was not worthwhile tracking the culprit to Nigeria and there was no "reasonable prospect of conviction", which is necessary for a prosecution to proceed.
An AFP spokesperson says it has no legal right to make inquiries or conduct an investigation in a foreign country. "However, the AFP works closely with international law enforcement, including Nigerian authorities, Australian law enforcement and industry to combat online crime of this nature in a holistic fashion."
The consensus among these agencies and others is that a victim of an online scam is unlikely to recover any of their money.
The Australian Institute of Criminology says "the best approach lies with prevention, in raising awareness and in encouraging potential victims not to respond to invitations in the first place". A spokesperson says: "Our role is education and awareness, but we do work with a number of agencies, both Australian and overseas, to try and disrupt scammers."
On Valentine's Day this year, the ACCC released voluntary "Best Practice Guidelines for Dating Websites", which most major dating sites claim to abide by. Some sites will not allow registrations from outside Australia, but Peter Brittain of Slinky.com.au says scammers work with Australian associates. Indeed, scammers use agents in Australia partly to stop alarm bells going off when victims are told to send money to Nigeria. Hoarey, for example, transferred money through Western Union to recipients in Queensland.
Earlier this year, Brisbane woman Sarah Jane Cochrane-Ramsey, 23, was convicted of fraud after being employed by Nigerian scammers to provide an Australian bank account through which they could funnel payments they received through a popular car sales website. Her payment was to be 8 per cent of all money received, but instead she kept the $33,000 she received, fleecing both victims and scammers.
Ken Gamble's company, Internet Fraud Watchdog, tracks IPs of fraudsters for those who can afford his services. He warns of an increase in investment scams, such as boiler-room fraud (cold calls offering investors worthless, overpriced or non-existent shares) and online sports betting fraud, backed by slick websites, glossy literature and fast-talking salesmen.
The Office of Fair Trading study shows that, surprisingly, it is people who are educated in the stockmarket and gambling who are most likely to fall for these scams and fraudsters, particularly retirees looking for better returns on their superannuation.
For Brittany Smith, being scammed was a wake-up call. "Being 17 years old and losing every cent I'd worked for was horrible. I was just shocked that people even did that. It was a bit of a reality check. I'm in the real world now and people do this kind of stuff."
* Miriam Munro is not her real name. It has been changed to protect her identity.
Eileen Ormsby is a Melbourne journalist. She blogs at allthingsvice.wordpress.com