Lovesick Queenslanders are funneling millions into the pockets of criminals running romance internet scams targeting the lonely.
As Australians celebrate St Valentine’s Day, police warn romance fraud is on the rise with Queenslanders sending around $1.6million a month to West Africa.
Preliminary research undertaken by the Queensland Police Fraud and Corporate Crime Group shows that more than 90% of money sent to Nigeria and West Africa per month is related to romance fraud, compared to 7% in 2006.
"In 2006 it was around $400,000 a month from Queensland to Nigeria, then in 2009 in our next round of research the money being sent involving romance related fraud increased to 70% and the value of money went to $800,000 to $1 million a month from Queenslanders. That is a 1000 per cent increase," said Detective Superintendent Brian Hay, who heads the unit.
Supt Hay said the scammers fleece an estimated $8million every month Australia-wide, with Queensland making up one-fifth of the funds sent.
"What we have seen is a parallel increase between the uptake to the internet and people talking to social media and the event of romance fraud..." he said.
"The sad part is there is a lot of lonely people out there , so we are seeing a greater migration to the internet and people seeking companionship. Crooks have not been shy in coming forward and seizing on that opportunity," he said.
Victims of romance fraud are usually over the age of 45, educated, skilled, tertiary qualified and have worked in professional occupations.
"The more information you give, the more ammunition you give to the criminal – they will simply manufacture a profile to match yours," he said.
Supt Hay said the community needed to be compassionate to victims of romance scams rather than condemn them.
"Let’s get rid of the idea these people are stupid, it’s insulting to them…you put yourself in their position with the human vulnerabilities that we all possess and you too can be a victim," he said.
The scams can leave victims devastated financially and emotionally, Supt Hay said.
His unit have established a victim support group
"Some people have contemplated suicide or attempted suicide."
He said the scams ultimately cost the community.
"This permeates every community. We help fight the problem through guidance, education and by allowing people to tell their stories without being ridiculed," he said.
Supt Hay said romance fraudsters were adept at isolating their victims from traditional support networks which stopped them from speaking out or seeking help.
"Instead of criticizing help them, contact us and we will provide information to better protect your loved ones. People need to be educated to prevent this sort of thing from happening," he said
Victims can use basic software or internet searches to help verify the identities of the people they having relationships with on the internet.
"You can learn how to find their IP address to verify the area they claim they are from, or if you are sent photographs you can use a program such as Tineye or upload the photo and check it against Google images . You may find it’s been taken from a dating or modeling site. Talk to your family and friends," he said.
Brisbane woman Jacqueline said she lost more than $100,000 in a romance scam over a two year period.
Four years ago as she was learning to use her computer, the divorced mother of one hit on an ad for a dating site and connected with a man who claimed to be an American working for the military in Iraq.
"At that stage I had many penfriends and thought it would be the same with him. I was at a stage in my life where I was happy and had a full life. I wasn’t desperate and dateless looking for Mr Right," said Jacqueline who asked that her real name not be used.
The friendship developed into a full blown relationship over two years with the man sending Jacqueline presents like music and letters.
"He made out there was a very strong connection between us and that it was something he was surprised as he had never experienced it before," she told Seven News.
Over the two years, Jacqueline sent money to the man at different times when he claimed he needed her help, including when he lost his job.
"He made me feel I was letting him down badly if I didn’t offer to help. I had no spare funds and lived on a shoestring budget. I was raising my son by myself. He promised he would return every cent," she said.
The scam was exposed when the man claimed he was arrested in Johannesburg en route to see Jacqueline in Australia.
"He told me he was arrested and I tried to help him. I contacted the embassy there and they told me it was a bit suspicious and to contact an government agency in Washington that helped US citizens who got in trouble overseas," she said.
After providing the man’s details, Jacqueline was told she was a victim of a romance scam.
"I was devastated, I couldn’t believe I had been so dumb. You want to believe people are genuine, even for a while after he had been arrested, I believed we had a real connection. Eventually I sold my house and I picked up the pieces of my life. I am getting married later in the year," she said.