An Auckland woman was "mentally and financially drained" after losing more than $300,000 to several overseas accounts in a social media romance scam.
The woman, who wished to remain anonymous and asked to be called Linda, shared her story with the Herald with the hope of warning others of similar traps.
The 54-year-old businesswoman said she was introduced through Facebook by a "mutual friend" to a man "presenting himself as a caring, religious and spiritual person".
Identifying himself as "Jim David Morrison", the British-American man began exchanging messages with Linda on WeChat, a social media chat site, in August last year.
Linda, who has been in relationships but never married, was charmed by the man, unaware he was a fraudster.
"We talked about family background, pets, religious beliefs, business and life experience, where we had travelled to, and arrangements for future life including buying property in New Zealand," Linda said in a police statement, obtained by the Herald.
Jim claimed he was a 40-year-old who owned a Scotland-based company called Morrison Construction, and had won a United Nations construction project to help rebuild Lebanon.
"Towards late September he was still talking about buying a home in New Zealand. It was then he introduced the topic of making me as an authorised signee to his bank account."
Linda said she "felt very uneasy" when her admirer first broached the idea of his financial arrangements.
"It was his way of showing me that he had faith in my abilities to look after his business and personal interests. I felt honoured."
Jim told Linda he was worried about his safety in Lebanon, where there was a "risk foreign workers can be kidnapped", and asked her to be his next of kin.
Linda later said these were all tactics Jim used to "lure me into his web of deception".
"I was led to believe that this person, who I had met through an acquaintance, was genuine and had good moral standards."
She was given Jim's account details at what was described as a Scottish investment bank.
After contacting the "bank" and proceeding through security checks, Linda was named as a co-signer of Jim's account.
The bank asked her to make an initial deposit of US$15,000 ($21,780), before a second payment of US$45,000 ($65,350) was required for a Bank of America account in San Diego.
Growing increasingly brazen, the scammer(s), via the investment bank, further asked Linda to pay an fee of US$85,000 ($123,430) to receive an "anti-terrorist clearance certificate" and cover wire transfers of more than US$5 million ($7.25m).
Linda didn't pay the fee, but a few days later Jim raised the issue of helping him with a personal loan of $US10,000 ($14,500) for a Kuala Lumpur-based building supplier.
She loaned the money, after which Jim said he'd made a mistake and required a further US$40,000 ($58,000), which Linda paid.
Jim claimed his Beirut construction project had developed problems, and he had to pay income tax to the Lebanese Government.
He asked and received for a further US$50,000.
"Of course I was very reluctant to make further loan payments. Then he told me about the kidnapping of a foreign worker from a construction site next to his," she said.
In total, Linda forked out more than $300,000.
"By this time I was stressed out emotionally, mentally and financially drained [and] hoping to get my loans back as soon as possible."
Linda made her final US$50,000 payment for the Lebanese tax.
But Jim continued to ask for more money, and as Linda began to question him, he became more aggressive with in his messages.
"Why did you not mortgage or borrow from your own house, or borrow from your friend," he wrote.
Linda said the messages continued for several more weeks into this year.
"By this time I had become very ill, relied on sleeping pills and stomach ulcers [had developed] due to the stress from the debt and emotional turmoil," she said.
Linda "begged" Jim to return the money, but he said she would need to travel to Malaysia to collect the funds from his debtor.
A contact at the Pearl International Hotel in Kuala Lumpur was given. However, when she rang the debtor's number the man who answered quickly ended the conversation and cut all communications.
Linda is yet to recover any of her funds, and has only recently rejoined social media and is now more aware of the dangers.
"I have changed my Facebook password a few times. I chatted with another scammer hoping to get useful clues but he stopped and closed [the] account two weeks later," she said.
The New Zealand Police are investigating the fraud.
London's National Fraud Intelligence Bureau, Malaysian cyber crime division, and America's FBI have also all had complaints laid with them about Linda's case.
Dating and romance scams
• Check the profile of new friend requests.
• Look for hidden friend lists or friend lists full of people of the opposite gender
profiles which read like a dating profile.
• Look for grammar and spelling errors.
• Don't send money to someone you've never met.
• Be cautious when sharing personal pictures or videos. Scammers are known to blackmail their targets using compromising material.
• Do an image search of your admirer to help determine if they really are who they say they are.
Safe use of social media
• Don't accept invitations from people you don't know.
• Report profiles you suspect to be scams.
• Review your privacy and security settings on social media.
• If you have been scammed online, take steps to secure your account and report it.
This week is Australasian Consumer Fraud week which sees police's financial crime fighting units and financial institutions raise awareness to help people identify fraud, scams, internet cons, and extortion. We take a look at some of the fraud occurring in New Zealand.
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