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Romance fraud costing Australians $42 million a year – are you and your loved ones safe?

We’ve all heard the horror stories about online fraud. Most people have received an email from a foreign ‘prince’ claiming to be in desperate need of money due to dire family circumstances. Similarly, it’s not uncommon to come across a text message telling you that you’ve won a prize in a competition, lottery or raffle that you never entered. Although many people are aware that these types of messages and requests are in fact scams, you might be surprised by how many Australians actually fall victim to online fraud each year.

Romance fraud

Romance fraud is exactly what is sounds like – online scammers who ‘groom’ their victims and lure them into a false sense of security, whereby they believe the person they are speaking to online deeply cares about them. They form a ‘relationship’ with this person, who will eventually ask them to send money or even travel to meet them. This is what happened to Maria Exposto, a grandmother who lives in Sydney.

Exposto was groomed for over two years by a man she met online and who she believed was her boyfriend. The man asked her to travel through Malaysia, each way, then onto Shanghai where she was to pick up a bag in Shanghai and bring it to him in Melbourne. Exposto complied with the man’s request, but little did she know the bag was lined with over a kilogram of crystal methamphetamine. Exposto was stopped in the Malaysian airport and has since been sentenced to death for drug trafficking. She is the first Australian to be handed the death sentence as a result of romance fraud and acts as a prime example of the devastating effects romance fraud can have, not only in regard to the victim’s money, but also their life.

Initially, Exposto was found not guilty when Judge Dato Ghazali was the first Judge to recognise romance fraud as a legitimate mitigating factor. On appeal, however, Exposto was found guilty of drug trafficking and will face the death penalty as a consequence.

How many Australians are effected?

Although Exposto’s case may seem extreme, the statistics surrounding romance fraud in Australia are actually quite alarming. According to the ACCC, Australians lost more than $42 million in 2017 as a result of romance fraud. Given that in 2016 the figure was also approximately $42 million, it appears that Australians are not being educated about the dangers of online scammers and are not learning from the mistakes of others.

In 2017, 55-64 year-olds made up just over 51% of the total money lost to online scammers, with people in that age range losing a total of $21.6 million. This goes to show that although you may be well aware of the dangers of online scams and consider yourself well equipped to identify a scam, your parents, grandparents, or other elderly friends and family members may not be quite so savvy. Have you alerted them to the dangers of romance fraud and other online scams?

Tactics used by online scammers

It has been suggested that online scammers use similar techniques to that of domestic violence perpetrators. One such technique is ‘coercive control,’ which can be described as a control tactic that does not require the perpetrator to make any sort of physical contact with their victim.

In the Australian case of Ahmed v Jeret coercive control was defined as “the exercise of power and control; intimidation; emotional abuse; stalking, minimizing; denying; and blaming” that can amount to “asserting male privilege; economic abuse; and coercion and threats”.

Common examples of coercive control include:

  • observing the victim’s daily activities and/or making the victim account for their whereabouts at all times;
  • not allowing the victim to contact their family and/or friends;
  • constant criticism of the victim;
  • threats of suicide and/or homicide;
  • threats to damage property and/or pets;
  • threats to expose sensitive information;
  • preventing the victim from accessing care or medication they require; and
  • using children to threaten the victim, for example threatening to take the victim’s children away.

The law on romance fraud in Australia

Australia has a National Framework of Rights and Services for Victims of Crime and each state and territory has its own legislation outlining how victims of crime should be treated. In Western Australia, the Victims of Crime Act 1994 defines a victim as a person who has suffered injury, loss or damage as a result of an offence. If the offence resulted in death, any immediate family member of the deceased is deemed to be a victim. The Act stipulates that a victim must be treated with curtesy, compassion and respect and given access to counselling, medical and legal assistance and injury compensation. Further, their privacy must be protected and they must be kept up to date about the progress of their matter, charges laid and bail applications if they have requested these updates, (so long as it would not jeopardise the investigation). Similarly, if the victim has requested to be kept up to date on issues such as the date the perpetrator will be released from custody and any instances of the perpetrator escaping from custody, they must be kept up to date as requested.

The Criminal Code Act 1913 says that fraud occurs whenever a person, who has the intent to defraud, uses deceit or any other fraudulent means to obtain property, gain any sort of benefit or induce a person to do something that they legally don’t have to do. The Act stipulates that a person found guilty of fraud will be liable for imprisonment for up to seven years, however, if their victim is over 60 years of age they can be liable for up to 10 years imprisonment. There is no reason to suggest that online and romance fraud is any different to the fraud detailed in the Criminal Code, however, online scammers are often incredibly difficult to track down and often reside overseas.

Conclusion

Romance fraud and other types of online scams are alarmingly common in Australia. If you or someone you know has been tricked by an online scammer, please do not hesitate to contact Lynn & Brown Lawyers.

 

About the authors:

This article has been co-authored by Chelsea McNeill and Steven Brown at Lynn & Brown Lawyers.  Chelsea is in her third year of studying Law at Murdoch University.  Steven is a Perth lawyer and director, and has over 20 years’ experience in legal practice and practices in commercial law, dispute resolution and estate planning.

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