Romance scams (online dating scams) remain a challenging issue for New Zealand internet users.

What are romance scams?

A scammer pretends to be in a relationship with someone online in order to scam them out of money. They do this through email, social media, dating websites and other website and apps. Usually these scammers are pretending to be someone they’re not, using photos and identities of people they’ve found online.We’ve had cases of romance scams reported to us where people have lost substantial amounts of money – ranging from a few hundred dollars, through to more than $2 million. It can be difficult to understand how this can happen, but it’s important to remember that these scammers spend a lot of time and energy to build a relationship online, and can make the relationship seem very real.

Everything they say will be fake – they’ll have a fake backstory, family, friends and job. Often they’re scamming more than one person at a time because they can make a lot of money out of these scams. Once they’ve worked to gain the trust of the person they’ve targeted, they will use various stories to get money or details from that person. They may start by requesting small sums of money to test the waters, and then build up to requesting larger amounts. In some cases the scammer may try to get the person targeted to help launder money for their criminal activities.

Romance scam – $40,000 lost

“I met a new American partner online and although she was based overseas we communicated a lot by email and text. Over several months I came to believe we could be together. She wanted help getting her family’s possessions transferred from Ireland and I sent money through to help. On the day the possessions were supposed to arrive in the US I got a message saying she had been arrested and requests for help continued to come through. I now realise the money has been lost.”

The impact of romance scams

Romance scams can cause the person targeted serious harm. It can be difficult to deal with the financial losses involved and the psychological trauma of being defrauded and jilted by someone they’ve come to “know” and care about. Research undertaken in the UK into the psychology of the online dating romance scam (PDF) has found that many people targeted are in denial when they’re told that their ‘lover’ is a fiction invented by criminal gangs to extort money.

After months or years of building up trust, friends or relatives who warn victims that they are being scammed can find the person being targeted is unwilling to believe it’s a scam. This leaves them vulnerable to further requests for financial assistance.

Help with identifying romance scams

Romance scammers are good at what they do and can spend months building up trust before they start to ask for sums of money. There is no fail proof way to identify a romance scam, but there are signs you can look out for.

  • Moving quickly: Confessions of love or strong feelings within a short time of meeting the person online.
  • Requests for money: Any request for payment via money transfer should set off alarm bells.
  • Personal troubles, that can be solved with money: If your new love mentions health problems, family issues, business troubles or other issues that could be solved with money.
  • Changes in communication style: If there are several scammers taking turns to maintain the relationship, writing styles may change.
  • Be wary if they’re hesitant about meeting: If a new romantic contact is not willing to meet up, or comes up with a series of excuses to avoid meeting, you should be cautious.

Reverse image searches

Romance scammers often steal photos published online and use these identities to approach people. Photos of models and uniformed soldiers are popular, however photos can be taken from anyone who publishes them publicly online – for example, from Facebook profiles.  If you’re suspicious about a new contact there is an easy way to see where their photo is being used on the web, by performing a reverse image search using Google Images.

How to reverse image search 

  1. Download a copy of the photo of the person on to your device
  2. Go to Google Image search, select the camera icon 📷  and upload the photo
  3. Google will return a list of results showing where the picture is being used on the internet

You may want to reverse image search using more than one image of the person. Remember this is not a fail-safe way to detect romance scams, but it is a useful tool as many scammers will take these photos offline. They’ll also often use the same image in more than one scam they are running.

What if a friend or family member is being scammed?

If you suspect a friend or family member is being scammed, you may need to intervene. You should think carefully about who the best person is to have the conversation – this should be someone who they trust. The scammers have spent time and effort building trust, so convincing the person targeted that they are being scammed may not be an easy conversation.

How to avoid a romance scam

  • Be cautious about who you communicate with online: It may be weeks or months before the first mention of money is raised but keep your wits about you.
  • Never respond to requests for money: Users of popular dating apps which match users with others located close by have reported rapid requests for financial help including ‘petrol money’.
  • Never send money to anyone you don’t know or haven’t met in person: Many romance scammers operate from overseas and any request to send payment offshore should raise a warning flag.
  • Avoid giving out personal details: Including financial information and identity documents such as a scan of your passport or driving licence which can be used for future scams.
  • If you think you are being scammed: Stop all contact and avoid sending further payments. Contact Netsafe or New Zealand Police for advice.

If you’ve been scammed

If you believe you have been or may have been scammed you should contact Netsafe for advice, and to discuss what kind of personal information you may have given to the scammer.

You can report the incident to the Police, but it is very likely the scammer is operating from a country overseas. If you’ve sent money off shore (via a money transfer service) it is highly unlikely these funds will be recovered or the offender(s) identified, as cyber criminals are very proficient at concealing their identities and often reside in countries that lack reliable law enforcement for NZ Police to liaise with.

Contact Netsafe

Need help or advice? Contact us.

  • Email queries@netsafe.org.nz
  • Call us toll free on 0508 NETSAFE (0508 638 723)
  • Online report form at netsafe.org.nz/report

Our helpline is open from 8am – 8pm Monday to Friday and 9am – 5pm on weekends.

More information