Romance scams are one of the most common scams that Westpac’s fraud team encounters, but they are also one of the hardest for victims to accept.
“We had one male victim in his mid-60s who had fallen in love with a younger woman he met online, saying she was in South Africa,” said David Sutcliffe from Westpac’s Financial Crime Investigations team.
“It started via Facebook messenger and over several months of emails, he felt they had a relationship.
“The fraudster started asking for small payments first, to help with her children’s school costs and then wanted larger sums of money to allegedly move to New Zealand.
“When we (the fraud team) started investigating the customer’s payments and reasoning, we did a reverse Google search on the woman’s photograph. The photo in fact belonged to a 30-year-old model from Nicaragua.
“(The model’s) real Facebook page showed she was married with two children in Nicaragua,” Sutcliffe said.
The fraudster was using someone else’s image to pose as a love interest.
The Financial Crime Investigations team sent the Westpac customer evidence that his alleged girlfriend was not who she said she was and informed him of the scam, but he was unwilling to accept it.
“He wouldn’t believe it was a scam and continued sending money abroad, so in this case we had to close his account because that was the only way to stop him from losing his money,” Sutcliffe said.
Registered counsellor Rachel Bowie, who is registered with the NZ Association of Counsellors (NZAC), says denial within a perceived romantic relationship can be common.
“People who have been betrayed can wrestle to forgive themselves and the other person.
“In some cases where it would be too painful to accept the betrayal, they would rather live in denial than accept it.
"People can cling to a person they think they know and project an image of that person through their own hopes and desires – which is not the reality of the situation,” the counsellor said.
Rachel Bowie says there is hope for people who have been betrayed though - they can seek a counsellor to rebuild trust for future relationships.
Tips on how to avoid a romance scam:
- Be vigilant if contacted by people on Facebook Messenger wanting to start a relationship.
- If you start corresponding with someone overseas, we suggest you never send money to someone you’ve never met in person.
- If someone starts asking for money – you can seek advice through CERTNZ (Government-run independent cyber security agency).
- If you’re unsure whether the relationship is legitimate, speak to your family and friends and also ask your local bank branch for advice – who will reach out to the fraud team.
- Even if you’ve been conversing with a person online for months, if they ask you to send money – speak with your bank first to see if it is legitimate.