(AUS) Even reputable internet dating sites are not immune from scammers trying to to take advantage of vulnerable people.
Last summer I went to a wedding celebration that was an unexpected delight, not the least for the bride who met her new husband on an internet dating site. Having just come to the painful terminus of a three-year affair, I could not suppress my wistful envy at her glowing happiness. The champagne flowed freely and several friends became bold enough to suggest that I should try internet dating. After all, what was to lose?
I failed to disclose that after my divorce in 2007, when I was living in the United States, I had signed up with the dating website e-harmony, but found shopping for intimacy such a humiliating experience that I aborted the process by changing my email address. I knew that it was easy to reactivate my membership - I needed to pay some money, revise my geographic location and supply a valid email. So I did as my friends had urged. What was to lose?
At first there was a flurry of e-harmony emails proposing likely matches for me, but when none of those men chose to contact me, silence followed. I had given the whole business away when, out of the blue, e-harmony sent me a very encouraging request for contact from Alan from Artarmon, a widower of 60. His profile said he was a consulting engineer, who appeared to be intelligent and well read, in addition to being a handsome man, if his photograph was to be trusted.
I felt a quickening excitement: I was lonely and sad and here was a successful, interesting man who liked what he saw in me. I stared at his email for a long time, thinking that someone with my life experiences was an unlikely choice for Alan from Artarmon and the message seemed rather generic, as if he had sent it to lots of women fishing to see who would respond.
I took a deep breath and cautiously typed a response to express my surprise and ask if he really meant to address me in particular. Expecting that would be the end of it, I went to bed at midnight, determined to put it out of my mind, which I never managed to do.
Next day I was doubly surprised to find Alan from Artarmon had replied in haste to assure me that he was much taken with my profile. He said he really liked that I was independent and was not tied to one place and promised to write at length after he had finished at work.
Blow me down, later that day there was another email telling me all about himself. His real name was Charles Carroll - his middle name was Alan - and he was a drilling engineer consultant with a postgraduate degree from the University of Queensland, who travelled overseas a lot and was currently working for a company in Reading, England. His wife had died a few years ago and there was an adolescent son in school in Malaysia.
It was a really long email, suggesting he had plenty of time to kill in his hotel room in Reading. He provided a lot of personal detail about his family background, his personal take on ethical behaviour and cultural interests that were highly compatible with my own.
Charles was clearly keen to impress upon me that he was the real deal, and not some flaky pervert; he even provided his personal email address so that we could communicate directly, rather than pay e-harmony for the privilege.
It was all very reassuring and I indulged myself in a little flurry of anticipation as I read and reread his message. But nagging at me was the bit about his son: wasn't he a bit too old to have a child in school, and why would he send his son to school in Malaysia?
Google can usually solve all such conundrums, but my cunning interrogation of the web was unable to find the consultant drilling engineer called Charles Carroll. It was only when his name was matched with a phrase from his message that Google found him, or rather located a copy of an email message from him that was almost identical to the one I had received, with a few variations such as a postgraduate degree from the University of Virginia. This email was sent to a woman living in America through a different internet dating site and was now posted on a website called romancescams.com.
A few hours of compulsive web searching revealed that the photograph I had seen on his profile was stolen from a male model named John Daniel, and that this image, paired with many different aliases, had been posted hundreds of times on internet dating sites, as well as Facebook.
In reality, the promising widower from Artarmon in Sydney was a room of electronically savvy youth in Lagos, Nigeria, who could just as readily be a woman named Emma, as circumstances required. The common scenario was that Charles, or Emma, worked for an international construction company, or an aid agency, and in the course of developing an intense online romance would be deployed in Africa, where a life-threatening drama would require a major injection of money.
The revulsion and shame I experienced at having been hooked, if not actually reeled in, by this scam was much worse than humiliation; I was swept by a wave of nausea.
But why have such a visceral reaction? Like anyone who uses email I am continually the target of scammers, but this was much more insidious because it was communicated to me by a respectable business that traded on being empathetic and trustworthy.
A letter from Mobuto's widow asking me to launder her husband's ill-gotten millions does not land in my inbox as legitimate communication from my credit union, nor does a begging letter from a young man orphaned by a war in Africa get forwarded by Save the Children.
Moreover, the mercenary or compassionate impulses that are triggered by these familiar scams come a very poor second to the powerful desire for intimate connection. This is what makes the online romance business a superb conduit for criminal activity.
According to the FBI, the romance scam is the work of very smart and very dangerous people who have connections to terrorism and who rake in billions of dollars with the tacit support of the online dating industry.
In Australia, online romance scams cheated men and women out of about $23 million last year, according to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, whose website carries the story of one man who paid his life savings of $200,000 to the orphanage that Emma claimed to have established in Africa. With that kind of money in play, scammers will take considerable time to cultivate strong feelings of intimacy and trust.
People who think themselves in love are highly vulnerable and will throw all caution to the wind to make romance tangible. It makes this a particularly cruel form of theft; one that leaves its victims doubly traumatised. I felt nauseous after the simple exchange of emails, so what was it like for a woman so deeply in love with Charles that when urgent medical treatments were needed to save his life she was willing to exhaust her savings and then take an extra mortgage on her house. Having paid a total of $95,000, she was suddenly unable to make contact. She lost her heart and she lost her house as well.
In February the ACCC issued best-practice guidelines for internet dating sites, advising they post prominent warnings and institute internal vetting procedures.
Yet six months later, a very respectable dating site actually directed me to a notorious scammer whose bogus identity should have been detected by digital security to identify the common heuristics of scam emails and the originating IP address.
There are still no prominent warnings on the home page of e-harmony or other reputable dating sites like RSVP that are known to be thoroughly infiltrated by scammers.
You would have to search deep into the dating advice section of these sites to stumble across advice that they might be used by unscrupulous people for criminal purposes. In such advice the onus of protection is placed squarely on you rather than the business that is charging money for every hopeful communication they encourage you to make.
In my particular case, e-harmony was very prompt to respond to my outraged complaint: they removed me from the site, as I requested, and refunded my money. They also sent a computer-generated message, which doubtless went to numerous other women, to say that they had removed Alan from Artarmon from their service and that ''privacy laws prohibit us from disclosing the specific reasons for our decision''.
I doubt that privacy laws pertain to an international criminal cartel operating out of Nigeria, and it's more likely that the lucrative internet dating business is reluctant to confess to a business model that regularly exposes its customers to serious criminal fraud. Despite the intervention of the ACCC, when it comes to shopping for intimacy, buyer beware.