Durban - Gertrude Smith experienced her fair share of troubles in life.
A public servant for more than 35 years, she relished the thought of retirement and finally being able to spoil herself after the death of her husband and son.
She dreamt of a holiday with the sun kissing her face and the waves lapping her feet.
Once her farewell party was done and she had time to settle into a new routine at home, she opened several social media accounts to stay in touch with colleagues and to find destination ideas for her holiday.
But then she fell in love.
The Facebook friend request came late one night, and curious to find out who the person was, she accepted.
The man was beautiful to look at and generous with his praise.
Smith fell in love hard and fast.
Unfortunately, they couldn't meet because he was working on a project in the UK and his money was tied up.
But since they were going to get married, she didn’t mind giving in to his request to send him money so he could visit her.
The transfer of funds took place. And then his Facebook account disappeared, and the WhatsApp number no longer existed. It took weeks before Smith accepted she had been scammed.
International investigator Rick Crouch said men were also at risk of being targeted in these sweetheart scams, but not as much as women.
“Victims are mostly middle-aged and older women. The scammers are very good at trolling the dating sites and identifying widows, divorced and lonely women to target,” said Crouch.
Given the proliferation of sweetheart scams, he has set up a unit dedicated to weeding out these fake romances. The unit takes on cases from around the world, and Crouch said often they were able to trace the bank accounts that money was paid into. Crouch said these scams had a devastating impact on victims emotionally, financially, and psychologically, and they had launched an extensive investigation into romance scams, aiming to uncover and bring the perpetrators to justice. “The scammers build trust and emotional connections, exploiting their victims’ vulnerability and ultimately deceiving them into sending money or personal information.”
To assist their clients, his team needs as much information as possible: “...basically everything they have, including social media profile, photos, and the life history that they have given the victim”.
Crouch said that while some of the crooks were in South Africa, they operated from anywhere in the world and were usually not “lone wolf types” but part of a syndicate and used similar stories on their victims.
“There is nothing that stands out, but the scammers are usually ‘working offshore on an oil rig’ or ‘an American serviceman’ that is deployed overseas. Those are the most common profiles.”
Yoshina Kistensamy, divisional manager of operations at The Association for the Aged (Tafta), said many elderly people craved social interaction, which made them vulnerable to scammers.
“Elderly people may become victims of online scams and catfishing because of isolation and loneliness. With increased use of social media and online banking, elders can become susceptible to being offered friendship, financial advice, or be blackmailed by scammers. Elders may not report these incidents to family and authorities because of embarrassment, shame and guilt.”
She advised them to have privacy settings on their phones and not to accept invitations on social media from unknown people, and to report suspicious contact, scams or threats to family, banks or authorities.
She said while Tafta wasn’t aware of any online scams targeting their residents, a male resident recently became a victim of financial abuse: a sex worker apparently took advantage of his kindness and convinced him to lend her R2 060 by making desperate pleas for food and accommodation.
Tafta has a national toll free helpline ‒ 0800 10 11 10 ‒ which offers help to victims or people worried they may be targets.
The Independent on Saturday