The Data Behind Heartbreak: Unveiling Romance Scams


In 2021, Australians lost a staggering $210 million to romance scams, contributing to a total of $3.1 billion lost to various scams as reported by the ACCC

In this episode, we delve into the complex world of romance scams, magnified by the alarming rise of deepfake technology. Featuring expert insights from Dr. Jacqueline Drew, we explore the sophisticated tactics scammers use, from love bombing to deepfake videos, and the significant financial and emotional toll on victims. Learn about the challenges in data coordination, victimology, and the steps being taken globally to combat these scams. 


Rhetta Chappell (host): Hi and welcome to Show Me the Data, a podcast where we discuss the many ways in which our lives and the decisions we make are impacted and depend on data. I’m Rhetta your host for today, and I’m a Data Scientist & Partnerships Lead at Griffith University.  

Today in studio, Tom and I are speaking with Associate Professor Jacqueline Drew. Jacqueline is a distinguished figure in the field of financial crime research, and she brings a wealth of experience to the world of data and criminology. As an associate professor at Griffith University School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, the Deputy Director of the Academy of Excellence in Financial Crime Investigation and Compliance, Jacqueline is truly at the forefront of innovative and high impact research. Notably, Jacqueline’s pioneering work includes spearheading one of Australia’s earliest studies dedicated to the enforcement strategies combating romance fraud. And she actively collaborates with Australian law enforcement agencies, equipping police detectives with the insights into victimology of financial crime and financial fraud. We hope you enjoy this conversation as much as we did. Now let’s get started.

Show Me the Data acknowledges the Jagera peoples who are the traditional custodians of the land on which we are recording today. And we pay respect to the elder’s past, present and emerging.

Thank you, Jacqueline, for joining us. And I’d like to start by asking you if you could please explain or define what an online romance scam is and how you kind of got into this line of work and why you think it matters.

Dr Jacqueline Drew: So online romance scam, as the name suggests, occurs in our cyber interconnected world. So individuals often will go on dating websites or social media or different types of apps looking for a romantic partner, and they’ll put their profile. If we take the example of a dating app, put their profile up there, provide a lot of information about all their wants, desires and needs, and then that’s where our scammers come in. So they will either have a fraudulent profile that they’ve faked an identity or they’ll steal someone’s identity and create a profile on these dating sites and they’ll make contact with their potential victim. Because our victims have put lots of information, details about what they’re looking for. Our scammers then tailor their message.

Romance scams are considered a type of advanced fee fraud, so it comes under that umbrella term. So advance fee fraud is a type of fraud where there’s a promise of something in the future based on an upfront payment. In the case of romance scams, the scammer is promising a romantic relationship, but at some point they’re going to ask for money. Typically, that initial request for money will be to visit their newfound love. Of course, they never turn up because they’re not who they say they are. So it’s an anticipation of some reward in investment scams. It’s often, you know, you pay some money upfront to release some money, some inheritance. But the romance scam really is based on that relationship and the promise of love.

Rhetta: And picking up on what you’re saying, is there a difference between online romance fraud and kind of online grooming? Are they the same? Does it happen the same way or are they are they different concepts?

Jacqueline: It’s really interesting because we I do work on any sort of exploitation in the cyber connected world. So romance scam is one we also do some research around child exploitation and grooming, and we actually see a lot of the same characteristics. It’s about grooming individuals psychologically manipulating them to engage in this type of fraud. So it’s through that emotional manipulation, obviously, with child sex offenders, that’s a different purpose With our romance scam victims, it’s purely financial exploitation. There is a long and protracted grooming process. Some of our victims will send money within two or three days. Other times, if the offender thinks that this person has the money, that thereafter they’ll groom this person, they’ll work on this person. They manipulate this person for years in order to get that that big financial payoff. So certainly that psychological manipulation is absolutely essential to how our victims first get engaged with the offender and certainly why there’s often years and years of this relationship that goes on despite that financial exploitation they’re experiencing.

Rhetta: You’ve conducted extensive research on policing these types of frauds and scams. Could you please explain how data or data analysis has contributed to understanding or combating this type of crime? And I guess also to if you can speak to what’s the kind of estimated financial impact like, what’s the size of this?

Jacqueline: In terms of getting a sense of how much scams, let alone romance fraud, is costing Australians or worldwide, it’s really hard to get that data, and that’s because a lot of victims won’t report. So they feel ashamed, embarrassed. They know that they’ve been duped by a scammer. They know it’s unlikely they’re getting their money back. So in terms of data sets, we find it very hard to get an accurate sense. Police agencies collect data and we have a number of other government agencies, banks, financial institutions. And it’s a really matter of trying to put all of those datasets together in to get a sense of how many reports there are, as well as the financial impact. But to give you a sense, just scams generally in 2021, it cost $3.1 billion to Australians. And then if we look at just romance scams and there’s so many different types of variations of scams for just romance scams, $210 million Australian money usually was sent overseas to these offenders. In the US. It’s, $1.3 billion lost of romance scams.

That’s massive,

Dr Tom Verhelst: Those are large numbers.

Jacqueline: And it’s not decreasing. So we saw in terms of just general scams in 2020 to an 80% increase in the amount lost. So this is not going away anytime soon. It continues year on year to increase. And it’s really important to understand the difference between volume, crime and financial cost. So when we look at the number of reports for, say, romance scams, it might look actually quite small.

The number of reports, though, still horrendous. But then we look at the financial devastation that it causes, and it’s an entirely different metric in the data to look at actually what is the financial loss that these victims have suffered. You know, often where some of us are duped in online shopping scams, things like that, but often very low financial loss. These are enormous. We have victims that have lost millions of dollars in single relationships to this type of scam.

Rhetta: So given given what you said before about the shame and the lack of reporting and your history with collaborating with Australian police agencies, do you see any data driven approaches that could improve law enforcement’s ability to investigate these types of financial crime?

Jacqueline: It really is about, I think, finding the pockets of data and taking a coordinated approach. Different entities have different pieces of the puzzle and they have different visibility over what’s happening. They have different access to who are the offenders, who are the victims, the financial costs, the number of reports. And at this stage, we don’t have a sophisticated, coordinated way of putting those datasets together. And so it really hinders us one in understanding the amount and the frequency and the impact of these crimes, but also understanding how these crimes play out. So with romance scams and online romance scams, offenders typically sit offshore. They understand that that’s the best place to be. They’re outside the jurisdiction of the police agency. So we often have very little visibility on who and why these offenders are operating. But we have a lot of visibility on the victims because the victims sit within the confines of Australia. So the way in which we approach, I guess data harvesting in this type of crime is we often rely on victim reports opposed to sophisticated methodologies that focus on the offender. And we understand the offending behavior through the eyes of the victim because that’s that that’s the people we have here that we can understand this type of crime the best.

Tom: Can you provide some insights into how you improve training of police detectives regarding the sort of these types of financial crime? Because it would be quite challenging, I can imagine, as a police officer, because if you can’t do anything and you’re just basically taking notes.

Jacqueline: It’s very frustrating. So the work we’ve done with the Queensland Police Fraud and Cybercrime Group worked with victims and also detectives that investigated scams and particularly online romance scams. And it’s a frustrating experience because the way police are trained and detectives are trained is they’re there to catch the offender, they harvest information or they interview victims for the purpose of catching the perpetrator. And the work that I do with Queensland Police and I teach at the Queensland Police Service Academy training detectives around romance crime. And I talk to them about victimology and taking a different approach when it comes to crimes like romance scams. So it’s about victim interruption. How do they identify victims earlier, how do they educate victims and how do they support victims to disengage from the offender? Really, at this stage, that’s our best shot. It’s not impossible. So I mentioned before our research that I do in the child exploitation space. We’ve been very successful in law enforcement, in engaging in international collaborations. We often see law enforcement action simultaneously occur across the world to catch these child sex offenders, which is enormously successful. But it takes motivation and it takes a lot of resources to have that into international cooperation. So it’s possible we just need to get it on the agenda that this is an important and impactful crime for these victims and deserves attention in terms of that international cooperation.

Rhetta: How are these perpetrators learning how to do this? You said there’s this massive increase from 2021 to 2022. Like how are they figuring out how to do this? How are they so effective? And like, how might we use data? Like, I’m thinking of my mum, I hope she doesn’t kill me for saying this, but she’s under 60. She’s online dating. How do we help people that are out there? How can we use data? Maybe to kind of target these groups, increase awareness? Like what do we know with this kind of increase? How do we help them? On the other side of that.

Jacqueline: It really is about education and prevention. So we know that older Australians are most vulnerable to romance scams, so they’re often less tech savvy, they’re more likely sometimes to believe what’s presented to them online and not be suspicious or questioning. So education around the prevalence and the impact of this type of crime is one, but also understanding that these offenders are sophisticated. So we do know that there’s romance scam groups like organised crime groups. Similarly, they group together, they learn from each other on what works and what doesn’t work. And they train each other in these sophisticated groups about what are the psychological manipulation tactics. 

Interesting story. Some colleagues of mine at the Queensland Police Service a number of years ago actually did a joint operation and went to Nigeria, which we knew that there was large cells of romance scammers operating out of Nigeria like call centers. So big rooms with people with lots of computers. And you know, this simultaneously contacting hundreds and hundreds of people that it’s phishing, right, trying to get someone in the net. And so our officers worked with the Nigerian police and busted some of these centers. And what they found was these offenders were researching they had research like mine about understanding the victimology and the law enforcement approaches to how to stop this type of crime. They also found on those computers from want of a better word, help desks. 

Rhetta: Tech support for online scammers.,

Jacqueline: Exactly. So what happened was, you know, they saw this interaction where this offender was scamming a woman offshore. They’d been relatively successful, but they came to a roadblock. So the victim had started to refuse to send money. They said, I don’t believe you are who you are. I’m not going to send you any more money. I think you’re a scammer. And what the scammer did, he sent off a message to the Help desk and said, This is what I’ve done. I can’t get any more money out of this woman. What do you suggest? And then a message came back from the Help desk with a lovely poem and some ways in which to woo this woman. The scammer sent it off and then we see another message go back to the Help desk and said, Awesome, fantastic. That worked. Thanks so much for your help. So these are sophisticated networks and the reason they’re sophisticated and they’ve got that set up is because they’re so successful. Yeah, millions and millions of dollars are going into their pocket. When there’s that sort of payoff, you’re willing to invest some resources in order to get that payoff.

Rhetta: And could you guys take on that research? Could you then? I know I don’t know the veracity of it, but could you benefit from what you found there or…

Jacqueline: I mean, it’s interesting too, to understand it gave us an insight. As I said, we often don’t see the other side of the coin. We don’t see the offenders and really showed what we could learn with that type of international cooperation. So it gave us the opportunity to understand from that point of view actually how sophisticated they were. So we didn’t realise at that time, and this was a number of years ago when sort of this crime really started to take off. We didn’t realise how sophisticated these offender groups were. We thought, you know, potentially they were individuals or small groups, but it was actually an organised structure. And that gave us a really good insight into the level of resourcing that these scammers had that we were unaware of. And what we really facing in terms of an uphill battle when such sophistication was being invested.

Tom: So we’re quite curious about how regulators and organisations can handle the issue of consent like the consent to taking away control from victims, because you hear these stories of you know, my grandmother got scammed, but then she didn’t want to believe us and she kept doing it interacting with the scammers. She kept paying like, as a society, is that a point where you sort of say, okay, we’ve got to step in because this person is no longer really thinking rationally?

Jacqueline: It is a very difficult situation we face. And that that certainly is part of the methodology of the offender, is to isolate the victim from anyone in the real world that can possibly interfere with the transfer of money. So it’s difficult to warn the victim once they become enmeshed, it’s difficult to convince them to stop sending the payments. And that’s, of course, our first port of call is to try to work with the victim to shed light on the fact that they are being victimised. So the work that we did with the Queensland Police Service, they were proactively ringing individuals that they believe were being victimised through romance and other types of scams online by looking at monetary transfers offshore.

More likely than not, when they contacted those victims, the victims were very angry about police contacting them and abusive to police about trying to interfere in the relationship that they had established. Now, these were law abiding older Australians that had, you know, in any other sense would have taken the warning of a police officer that rang to tell them that they’re a victim of a crime. But the level of addiction that they had to this relationship and the control that these offenders had over them, it was very hard to convince them. We also see, you know, trying to convince victims when they contact the bank, financial institutions, when they go to money, monetary transfer agencies to send money offshore.

We invest in training for all of those groups to try to understand what the victim is experiencing, but also how to interrupt. It’s easier to stop financial transactions when there’s a very clear criminal element, so money laundering. You know, the things that are very clear are being organised crime groups laundering money through a bank account. For instance. Banks have quite a lot of control over that. Under legislation, when someone is voluntarily sending money and they will swear black and blue that it’s their boyfriend or girlfriend offshore, often those monetary transfer agencies and banks, their hands are tied in terms of stopping an individual sending their own money overseas.

But there has been some progress lately around the banks coming together and collaborating. So there’s the fraud reporting exchange and it’s allowing banks in real time to look at transfers of money. It can put up a red flag and it actually allows those institutions to reach out, whether they’re successful or not. In convincing the victim not to send the money is up to how convincing they are compared to the offender. But there is work going on to how do we identify these transactions earlier, how do we contact victims and also how do we talk to victims to convince them that that they’re actually part of a scam?

Rhetta: Are there any good news examples of countries or organisations that have really made an impact in that space or kind of someone that you’re looking to as, I guess, a bit of a guide?

Jacqueline: Well, it’s interesting. In the UK just very recently, some new legislation was introduced and it makes financial institutions and other payment providers actually legally liable to reimburse customers who have lost money to scams. So it’s put a bigger onus on financial institutions and other payment providers to actually be proactive and actually invest resources in trying to stop these scams happening. And the early reports that are coming out of the UK is that when it hits the bottom line of these banks and financial institutions that they’re having some success or they’re having greater success than they did before. So it’s given those entities an incentive to actually assist their customers more and trying to interrupt these scams because they will actually be financially liable.

It’s also interesting with that legislation that the institution that receives the money is also financially liable for losses. So if Bank A the customer has money in a bank and that customer asks to send it to the scammer in Bank B, both of those institutions will have some liability. So it’s tackling it at both ends, which I think is really smart. It’s about where the customer is, but also where the funds go. So the institution where the funds go also have responsibility in terms of liability now. And as I said, early indications it’s new legislation seems to be positive. And that’s certainly something that I think that we need to understand here in criminology. We talk about levers and what are the levers you need to pull to to interrupt a crime. Financial levers is certainly one about who’s responsible. But of course, social media dating platforms, apps also have a responsibility because that’s how these crimes are committed. And I don’t think we have enough oversight or enough ability to get some of these platforms to take it seriously yet.

Tom: Especially with all these novel technologies like the advanced language models, like ChatGPT other advances in machine learning and AI, it’s all feels like that could be really weaponised to try and reach more people and really construct that narrative. Do you see any, dangers that any risks there that that’s going to just proliferate?

Jacqueline: Absolutely. So, you know, one of the things that we know that is becoming more sophisticated with these scammers is the ability to develop really realistic looking profiles, harvest information, develop images, back stories, all of that background data that, you know, crime prevention messages. If you say do your research. Now, when people do their research because of this technology, you know, you’d be able to create a whole life story with someone, a whole digital presence online. So when you look up someone, it looks like they’re a real person. They’re, you know, they’re on all these social media platforms. And that’s been enabled by technology because it’s so much easier to do that now, one of the things that I think is particularly scary, and it’s a line with romance fraud, but more generally financial exploitation online is some work around image based abuse, and often that is when, you know, you share images in a consensual relationship, graphic images, and then someone decides after that relationship breaks up to post that online and extort you for money. So our crime prevention message has always been, you know, consider what images that you send even when you’re in a relationship. Now, that relationship may not last. What we have seen increasing significantly over the last few years is deepfake images. So the technology is so cheap and easy to get. People can get, you know, an individual’s head, put them on an image of a naked body, and it looks so realistic.

It’s hard even sometimes for those in law enforcement to determine what’s a fake and a real image now. And that’s that. Same with documents and proof of identity. So the technology is just going to create and undermine a whole range of crime prevention messages we’ve got. Because how do we protect ourselves when images can be digitally altered, when identities can be created that seem so real? 

Rhetta: On that, is there any sort of data gap or is there one sort of dream data set that if you could have access to anything to sort of combat these kind of multitude of issues that you’ve raised in this space of romance scams and I guess it’s a thought experiment. So we’re not necessarily thinking about policies or costs or things like that. What would it be and why would you want that particular data set?

Jacqueline: I think that the data set would have to be multi-dimensional, so which we don’t currently have because of the lack of coordination across the data. So that data set would have to take a view of profiling the offenders and the victims and also information about how they commit their crimes. That dataset would also need to have an ability to have some trajectory so we know offenders change quickly. So the problem with a data set, it’s often stagnant, it’s a capture of data at one point in time. But these crimes move so quickly. So, you know, real time data collection in these databases where we can identify these trends as they happen in law enforcement, we often talk about playing catch up when it comes to online crime.

As soon as we develop technology to combat the type of crime these individuals engage in, they’ve moved on. They’ve got a new technology and we don’t know about it, and we discover it after victims come forward. So I think in terms of that data set, it would be about having that multi-dimensional view, but also real time data, because otherwise, if it’s a year later and we’re looking at a year old data set so that that ship has sailed.

Rhetta: And I guess too. is there any sort of main tips and tricks, Again, thinking of my mum like what are some like easy things that people that are online dating or engaging with online romance experiences, how can they be safer about doing that? 

Jacqueline: In terms of some key warning signs, often it’s unsolicited contact. So an individual will come out of the blue that will make contact with you. Often it’s a friendly approach. They might pretend to know you or say they’ve made a mistake. They’ve they’ve sent you a WhatsApp message. But they must have had the wrong number. But they start to engage in a conversation. So any time someone contacts you out of the blue, even if they say that they might know you or they start trying to get information from you so they can make a connection, always be wary of that. In terms of the grooming process, as I said, these offenders might ask you for money very early on, but that’s not always a warning sign. They might talk to you for weeks or months before they ask for money. And we often see the escalation of emotion very quickly in these relationships. So within a couple of days or a week, the person will start professing undying love,

Rhetta: Just like that love bombing thing.

Jacqueline: Love bombing? Absolutely. They do love bomb. The other indicator is when they start trying to make you dependent on them, so they start isolating you from interactions with people in the physical real world. Because what they’re trying to do is make you entirely dependent. One of the detectives told me that some of the most successful romance scammers will ensure that the first person that the victim talks to in the morning and the last person that they speak to at night.

Rhetta: Bookending that whole experience, then that’s creepy.

Jacqueline: Absolutely. And it also creates that dependency. So if we get used to the new love of our life ringing as the first thing in the morning and the last thing at night, and for some reason they stop doing that, and then their next request is, my telephone data has run out. That’s why I couldn’t contact you. Can you send me some money for that? So they create scenarios, so they create a dependency and then they create scenarios in order to psychologically manipulate you. Also the secrecy of the relationship so often these offenders will very clearly indicate to their victims that they should keep it secret, that they shouldn’t share too much about their new romance because people wouldn’t understand. So secrecy is also a key red flag. With the research that we did with victims, many of our victims said that right at the beginning they had a sense that maybe it wasn’t quite right, this person wasn’t quite genuine. But then a number of other victims said they took a leap of faith. So I would say in terms of a warning sign, trust your gut instincts. There’s, as they say, plenty of fish in the sea. So if there’s a little spidey sense that goes up that says, I’m not really sure this person’s right, just don’t engage, because as soon as they’ve got their hooks into you, it’s very hard to disassociate they’re playing with your emotions and it’s very hard to get away from them once you’ve started that relationship.

Rhetta: Is there anything else you’d like our listeners to know or what to watch for, how to find you?

Jacqueline: I would just say that in terms of if you yourself are in a vulnerable group, anyone can be targeted that particularly if you’re in a vulnerable group for these types of scams or you have family or friends to be on the lookout for it, ensure that you support individuals. Do not be dismissive of online relationships. Try to be understanding of the fact that you know the person that your mother or your father or your sisters or brothers, they’re just looking for love. And sometimes these scammers are so good that that your loved ones can be duped. So it’s frustrating. It’s often a very depressing experience for those family and friends around because they can see what’s happening to this victim, but stay the course at some point, this relationship’s going to fall over and they’re going to need you to support them. And that’s going to be a way that they actually can disengage with their offender. And if they still have that family support.

I would also say, you know, make sure you do report. The more data we have, the more information we have about the numbers of people that are victimised and the financial losses, the more we can lobby for more to be done about this type of crime. So there’s nothing to be ashamed or embarrassed about if you’ve been caught up in this scam. Hundreds of thousands of reports, millions, billions of dollars are being lost. You’re not alone in being duped by these scammers. So please report either to your police agency or to scamwatch. There’s a new Australian Anti Scam center. The more that we can shed light on this, the more likely we are to understand the crime and more likely we are to prevent it or at least interrupt it when people are becoming victimised.

Rhetta: I think that’s all that we have for today. Yeah. Yeah. Cool. It’s really good. Thank you.

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