Speaking out this week, two Durban women said they wanted to warn others not to part with their money. Internationally, more than 2000 people fall victim to the scam daily.
A Durban woman in her fifties, Stacey (not her real name), who had lost her husband after 32 years of marriage, became a target.
“I was new to the dating scene and didn’t know of these scams, but I’m fairly IT and tech savvy, so I wouldn’t have expected to have fallen victim to any online scam.
“I registered a profile on an online dating site innocently thinking that everyone there was also just trying to find the right partner, with no bad intentions,” she said.
Contact was made by a man named Jason last year, and after exchanging email addresses, Stacey was informed that he was an industrial engineer of Scottish and Hungarian descent, was widowed and had a grandson in England.
“We would chat, and he was wonderful. He was very attentive and became part of my everyday life. He had an accent which he explained due to his background, so I did not think too much of it. He even used Hungarian words, which I researched, and it was all correct.
“We had proper intellectual conversations, I had no real reason to suspect him, and it really was too good to be true,” said Stacey.
Her suspicions grew, however, when her requests for a video chat did not materialise.
“When he finally relented and agreed, an image of a man came up but there were problems with signal and audio,” she said.
The relationship continued for more than two months, and by now, he was on contract in Ghana and once his work was done, he wanted to fly to South Africa to be with her.
The day before he was due to land in the country, he said the machine swallowed his credit card and he urgently needed to pay his foreman $5000 before he left.
“There was an urgency to it, and I felt under pressure. At first I said I have no money, but he kept calling and so I deposited about R25000 via money transfer into his account in Ghana,” she said.
In fact, the assistant at the money transfer company asked Stacey if she knew the person she was sending the money to.
“I was convinced everything was legit and I would soon see him, and he sent me a picture of himself in the plane to South Africa,” she said.
Unfortunately, the wait at the airport for him to arrive turned into tears, as Stacey realised she had been scammed.
“I finally discovered he was from Ghana and reported my experience to the US-based Society of Citizens Against Romance Scams. All the images he sent to me, are already there. People report their experiences there. I found out there is a wide syndicate that writes scripts for the stories they tell women, there’s fraudulent websites specially created for the scam and photos are staged,” she said.
Stacey said, although embarrassed at the deceit, she reported the incident to local police in the event that any of her details emerge in criminal activities.
In another case, Esther, 73, (not her real name), also from Durban, said she had been propositioned by a man from the UK, on Facebook.
“We spoke every night without fail and he was so caring and called me honey. When you speak to someone so often you start to develop feelings for them,” she said.
Esther’s online relationship with the man continued for weeks, and he said he would soon be on his way to be with her and was sending a parcel to her with a laptop, cellphone, an engagement ring and lots of foreign money in advance of his arrival.
“I was called and told that I had to pay a fee to release the parcel, about R5000. Stupid me borrowed the money to pay for it thinking that my engagement ring was in there,” she said.
The ring, and the man, did not materialise.
“I was crushed because we had many conversations, I even lost weight because of this situation.”
Dr Sherona Rawat, a clinical psychologist at Ahmed Al-Kadi Private Hospital in Durban, said criminals deliberately seek out vulnerable individuals.
“Their goal is to trick an individual to make a profit for themselves in some way. They use psychology and play on an individual’s weaknesses and needs,” she said.
There was no harm in meeting people online, she said, and possible to fall in love with someone via electronic communication.
“It’s not the medium that’s important, but the intention of the parties concerned that makes all the difference. Once rapport and trust is developed, which the scammers feign catastrophe or seeming in need of help and the victim would find it hard to not comply with the requests,” she said.
She said people needed to be aware of the excessive sharing on social media.
“Social media gives one a false sense of safety as well as familiarity, hence there is excessive sharing and a lack of healthy scepticism and realistic boundaries. Know the risks of social media and virtual relationships and guard against it,” she said.
SA Fraud Prevention Service head Manie van Schalkwyk said there had been significant growth in this type of scam. “In the US, this type of scamming has caught the attention of the FBI which has a dedicated unit to address what it estimates to have cost in losses to the victims, more than $230million in 2016.
“Scammers typically seek out individuals who are older than 50, either single or in difficult relationships, who are looking for romance,” he said.
He said most victims were tech-savvy and targeted by criminal syndicates from anywhere in the world.
“It’s not hard for these people to target the emotionally vulnerable as people reveal much about themselves on social media sites. The scammer entices a prospective date with endearing messages that make the victim feel loved. This is the technique that inspires trust and leads the perpetrator to ask for a gift or money, or a favour of some kind. In many situations the person will promise a meeting, but this never materialises,” he said.
He warned people to be careful online.
“Be very careful about how much personal information you share on social network sites, particularly photographs and videos as you may be setting yourself up as a target for a fraudster. Rather be safe than sorry,” he said.THE INDEPENDENT ON SATURDAY