Beware of romance scams this Valentine's Day
Valentine's Day can make single people feel even more lonely, making them vulnerable to online romance scams says the Commission for Financial Capability.
Fraud Education Manager Bronwyn Groot has seen a steady increase in the number of people being duped out their life savings by people they thought cared for them.
"Unfortunately these Kiwis discover the person they thought they were talking to is in fact a sophisticated organised crime ring," says Groot.
Netsafe estimates that $8.7 million was lost by New Zealanders in romance scams between January and September 2018, compared to $1.4 million for the whole of 2017. These figures are considered the tip of the iceberg as so many scams go unreported.
Groot has been helping a farmer named Mark who responded to an approach from a woman through Facebook. He lost $1.2 million before accepting he was embroiled not in a romance, but an overseas scam.
His loss included selling the family farm he had inherited from his parents.
"This woman Connie told me her parents had been killed in a car accident. I talked to her for about two or three months. And then she told me she had inherited some gold, and needed money to pay fees to have it released by the American government. And I went along with it," he said.
He sent her $30,000, but that was just the start. Connie convinced Mark to send money to the UK, the US and Malaysia for fees, taxes and transportation that she said would allow her to bring her inheritance of gold to New Zealand.
The more he lost, the more he spent trying to regain his money, and the less he wanted to believe that he was being scammed. In the end, he had nothing left.
"I was alone at the start and I'm even more alone now.”
Groot says money sent overseas can rarely be regained.
"The tragedy of romance scams is that people not only lose money, but also have their hearts broken. They go through a grieving process over losing someone they thought they loved, and who they thought loved them.”
Romance scams can start through dating websites, other social websites such as Words with Friends, unsolicited approaches through social media, by email or through apps.
"These people will move quickly, confessing their love for you within a short time of making contact," says Groot. "They will then ask for money to help a sick family member, or for airfares to come and see you. The stories become more and more elaborate.”
Groot advises stepping back and taking time to think and investigate whether an approach is genuine.
Never send money to someone you haven't met in person.
If the person who approached you sends a photo of themselves, try putting it into the Google search bar to see if they've stolen it from someone else's identity.
Show any documentation they send you to someone else and get their help to verify it.
If you think you're being scammed, stop all contact. You might need to close or change your social media pages and replace the sim card in your phone.