Don’t be a victim of a Rom-Con…If it looks too good to be true, it almost certainly is!
In this latest edition of our Room 228 Newsletter, we look at the increasing phenomenon of romantic scams (Rom-Cons) which can have a devastating emotional, mental, financial and reputational impact on unwitting victims.
My legendary boyfriend / girlfriend
We’ve now lost count of the number of times we’ve had to say to clients: “I’m sorry, but I have to tell you that your new ‘boyfriend’ / ‘girlfriend’ isn’t actually real”.
It usually begins with a frantic phone call from someone who has been ‘ghosted’ by a new boyfriend / girlfriend who they’ve ‘met’ online but have never actually met or even spoken to in person or over the phone.
“I transferred US$30,000 to his bank account to help him with his urgent medical bills whilst he’s stuck in Italy but haven’t heard from him for a couple of weeks, so I’m a bit worried. Can you help me track him down to make sure he’s OK or to get my money back?”
“I transferred US$200,000 into her account as she said she had a crypto-currency opportunity which was just too good to be true, and now I can’t get hold of her, so do you think you can find her to make sure my investment is safe?”
By the time we receive this call, it’s almost certainly already too late. The money was (usually within hours) forward onto several different accounts (some of which will be overseas) controlled by the virtual ‘soul mate’ who obviously never existed in the first-place. The only comfort is that there these primary recipient accounts are usually being regularly topped-up by other unwitting victims of the same scam artists, so there remains a possibility (however remote) of getting some or all of your money back (see below).
All kinds of social media platforms are used by the increasingly sneaky scammers (WhatsApp, WeChat, Facebook, Messenger, Instagram etc) – usually an enticing introductory flirty message mentioning a piece of personal information about the target (mark) harvested online, accompanied by an unfeasibly attractive profile pic (even stock photos of K-pop stars) sent to multiple vulnerable targets in multiple countries by an organized scammer group sitting in a ‘boiler room’ full of laptops.
A growing billion-dollar industry
It’s always really difficult for people to accept that they’ve been the victim of a romance scam. “How could I be so stupid to fall for something like this?” but we’ve seen it happen to very intelligent, savvy, capable people, and far more often than you’d expect – so it really could happen to anyone and does!
The fraudsters are banking (literally) on the victims feeling too embarrassed and ashamed to report the scam to the police, or to get lawyers (or anyone else) involved.
Online romance or ‘confidence’ fraud is a growing billion-dollar global industry and on the rise during the global Covid-19 pandemic. According to recent data from the Hong Kong police, the number of reported romance scams nearly doubled to 905 cases last year, with victims (90% of whom were female) collectively being conned out of HK$212.6 million (over US$27 million), but that really is just the tip of the iceberg as the vast majority of these fraud cases go unreported, whether the victim is male or female.
Romance scammers are sophisticated and trained at identifying and grooming susceptible victims. They generally create fake online profiles to lure their victims and carefully create and cultivate the illusion of a romantic / close relationship. Once trust and confidence is established (which doesn’t take long in the age of ‘fast online friends’), the virtual boyfriend / girlfriend comes up with a reason why he/she needs money – usually for travel, an emergency, medical bills or a once-in-a-lifetime investment opportunity etc. There will also be endless excuses as to why they cannot meet in person. As soon as the victim starts (usually too slowly) to catch-on or the money stops, so too does the whirlwind e-romance.
Help, I’ve been Rom-Conned!
If you suspect or discover that you’ve become a victim of a romance scam, don’t be tempted to keep it to yourself. Romance scammers utilise all sorts of tactics and technology to conceal their identities, including the use of untraceable prepaid phone cards, and VPNs to mask their IP addresses. Your best chance of recovering your misappropriated funds is to act FAST – make a report to your local law enforcement agencies (in Hong Kong to issue a “letter of no consent” to ‘freeze’ the recipient local bank account(s), inform your bank(s) and instruct your lawyer to apply for and obtain a ‘freezing’ court order over the target recipient bank account(s) as soon as possible.
Top Tips for avoiding romance scams
Here are our Top Tips to avoid being rom-conned (in no particular order):
- be careful of what you post and make public online. Romance scammers use this information to better target and manipulate you.
- Run an image search of the individual and beware if theindividual’s photo or profile pic appears under different names…and check against stock images (K-pop stars again)!
- run online searches of every person or company referred to in the loving messages, including google earth searches of addresses.
- go slow, very slow! Be super suspicious if the individual professes his/her love too quickly.
- be wary if the individual seems too perfect – if it looks / sounds too good to be true, it almost certainly is!
- tell selected trusted friends and family about the budding ‘relationship’ and just as importantly, listen to what they have to say about it!
- beware if the individual attempts to lure you off a dating service / social media site to communicate directly.
- NEVER transfer money to an online ‘lover’ who you haven’t met in person / have only communicated with online or by phone.
- be suspicious if the individual promises to meet in person, but always has an excuse as to why it can’t happen.
- be extra cautious if the individual asks you to transfer funds for the purchase of a crypto currency as the scammers know that it’s much harder for you to recover your money from a digital wallet than it is from an old-fashioned bank account.
Remember – online love interest + request for money = SCAM
In the coming weeks, we will be delving further into other types of cybercrime including the increasing prevalence of ‘ransomware’ and ‘extortionware’. Until then, you should read (with extreme caution) the following BBC article: ‘We have your porn collection’: The rise of extortionware and consider very carefully what you choose to store on your work computer systems, or even better still – don’t watch porn at work (or at home if you’re working from home) on your employer’s computer server!
This Newsletter is not intended to be and should not be relied on as legal advice. You should seek professional legal advice before taking any action in relation to the subject-matter of this Newsletter.