Grandmother duped in dating scam

By Michele McPherson

A million dollars worth of diamonds. Somalian robbers. An urgent $5400 money transfer to a Dubai bank account.
In hindsight it is all so incredulous. And so blindingly obvious.
But, let's go back to the beginning.
Tauranga mother and grandmother Maria (not her real name), 54, is looking for love on the dating website match.com, when she is "winked" by a kindly looking, bearded gentleman, with the username "kiwibloke25".
His profile says he is a 55-year-old Hamilton man, seeking women aged 49 to 68.
A member of the site for only about a month, Maria has been on a few lunch and coffee dates but none of them have captured her affections.
However, there is something different about this man.
"You kind of think, he looks down to earth. He isn't fancy. I like that," says Maria pointing at a postage stamp-sized photo of him that she has downloaded from the website.
In his first email to her, in which he says that she "seems to be the type of person he is looking for", he offers her his personal email address.
They start exchanging emails and talking on the phone, sharing intimate details about their lives - their families, their loves and losses, what they like to eat for breakfast.
He reveals that he lives in Auckland but doesn't want his family and friends to find out he is using a dating website and that he has since removed his profile because he is "attracting the wrong kind of people".
He also tells her that he is a geological engineer whose work involves a lot of international travel and that he is looking for a "serious relationship".
His only daughter, he says, passed away a few years ago, following a "heartbreaking" divorce from his wife.

For many years he has spent Valentine's Day at the cemetery, as he has not been able to face sharing the day with a woman but next Valentine's Day will be different, he tells Maria, because he will be spending it with her.
"The thing about the daughter and all that, you know, if you're a mother," Maria puts her hand to her chest.
After about a fortnight of corresponding, he says he has been contracted to work on an oil rig in the UK for two to three weeks. He also says he is going into semi-retirement and plans to open a top-end jewellery shop when he gets back to New Zealand.
Maria excitedly plans to meet him at Auckland Airport upon his return.
When he arrives in the UK he gives her a London phone number to call him on and it checks out.
On his way home he travels via Dubai where he is to purchase diamonds valued at US$1.5 million ($1.9 million).
Again, he provides Maria with a phone number.
However, while travelling by taxi he is robbed by Somalian gangsters, who take his briefcase and Rolex watch.
Distressed, he calls her, saying that all his bank accounts have been frozen and he cannot pay the duty on the diamonds. She wires him $5400 - all of her savings.
He then asks for more money to pay a Kuala Lumpur company to safely transfer the diamonds home, as he is not allowed to carry them himself because it is too much of a security risk.
Starting to feel uneasy, Maria dials his Auckland number. It has been disconnected. She contacts the real estate agent with which his Auckland house is listed and finds out it has been sold.
The awful truth dawns on her - "kiwibloke25" does not exist. His photo, credentials and the love he has lavished on Maria are all fake.
She has been scammed.
"You think back and you think - how ridiculous. I've never done this before," says Maria, leafing through a wad of printed emails.
"I guess when you're a bit lonely ... and I guess because I don't really lie I just trust people. I wouldn't be able to make all that up as a lie but, then, if they're professionals and they do it all the time ... how many other women have heard the same story?"
She contacted the police but there was nothing they could do.
"So much happened so quickly. I couldn't believe I had been duped."
Embarrassed, she has only told one of her closest friends about her ordeal. Even her own family doesn't know.
Alastair Stewart, communications adviser for the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, which runs Scamwatch, says it has received a few reports of dating and romance scams in the Bay of Plenty.
"They are some of the coldest and cruellest forms of scams reported to us, as they can leave victims both financially and emotionally hurt.
"With other scams, scammers hope to catch you off guard. But dating scammers work to build your trust over time, and lower your defences. Then, directly or indirectly, they will ask you to help. It may be because they claim to be terribly poor, have suffered a personal tragedy, or need money to visit you," says Stewart.
"The scammers will keep the connection going until they have drained as much from you as you can give, and then they will disappear."
So far this year, the Scamwatch service has received about 40 alerts from Tauranga people.
Last year, it received about 95.
However, it is likely to be much higher as these are only the ones that are reported.
Many of the scams in the Bay of Plenty this year have been lottery scams, via text and email, says Stewart.
"Thankfully residents appear to recognise such emails and texts as scams and ignore them. Our advice is simple: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is."
Scamwatch has also had "a number" of reports of bogus rooms for rent, where would-be renters are asked to wire bond and rent money in advance, without visiting the property.
"A room for rent is offered, usually in a flash home at a comparatively cheap price, on flat hunting websites ... one young Tauranga woman fell for such a scam, sending $540 overseas which, as a student, was all her savings," says Stewart.
"Never, ever send money via a wire service unless you know and trust the person completely, and don't take a property unless you have viewed it, in person, with the owner or agent," he cautions.
"Unfortunately, once money has been wired overseas it's virtually impossible to recover, so the best method of protecting yourself from getting scammed is by knowing the signs of a scam."
Scamwatch had also received "numerous" reports of emails and phone calls from scammers pretending to be from reputable charities.
"Unfortunately during times of disaster, such as the recent events in Christchurch and Japan, scammers prey on the goodwill of New Zealanders," says Stewart.
"If you wish to donate to such causes, we recommend approaching charities directly, through their official channels. If you are approached face-to-face by someone representing a charity, look for official identification. Even if they have ID, check for signs that the ID may be faked."
Another scam doing the rounds in the region is people posing as computer technicians.
Claiming to be from reputable companies such as Microsoft, Virtual PC Doctor or Jars Support, they phone to say your computer is infected with a virus or malicious software. They then talk you through the "repair process" to try and gain access to your computer, or they offer to "fix" your computer for a one-off fee, to get access to your credit card details.
"Unlike email scams, telephone scammers are often forceful, intimidating and prey on citizens who may be in vulnerable positions, such as the elderly," says Stewart.
"If you ever receive a call like this, hang up straight away. Remember, you have the power in a telephone conversation to hang up and shouldn't be afraid to do so."
Mike Tyrer, chief executive Age Concern Tauranga, says while he does not know of any of the organisation's members having been scammed over the past year, a reminder to be vigilant is always included in the monthly newsletter.
"I guess, historically, they [older people] are vulnerable. They are a bit inclined to see the best in people. There are opportunists around who target these people," says Tyrer.
"We've heard about them [in other areas] but there have been no specific complaints from our members. We just have to keep that in the forefront of any communication we have with them [our members]. I know that I query a lot of things these days before I go ahead and do it."
For Maria it was a hard lesson learned.
"I've really tried hard to forgive myself. I will never, ever let myself get in that position again," she says.
But her story does not end there. For Maria there is a happy ending. Her bank account may be empty but her heart is full.
Love is blossoming with a man she met through match.com, although this time she followed the website's protocol, directing emails through the site and getting to know him, before giving him her personal details.
"He is absolutely beautiful and I'm thinking, after the trip that I've had, I've found the one."
Scams
For the latest scam alerts, details on scam alerts and advice on what to do if you have been scammed, visit: www.scamwatch.govt.nz

- BAY OF PLENTY TIMES

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