After going through a tough divorce, friends convinced Susan to join Tinder and meet someone new.

She quickly matched with a man named Shaun who was in the US Military and based in Afghanistan.

Susan, in her 40s, told him about how painful her divorce was and that she wanted to learn to trust again. Shaun said he'd be her rock.

But Shaun was a scammer and Susan lost $42,500 of her life savings.

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Over the course of six months, the scammer groomed and emotionally manipulated Susan, who wished to remain anonymous, into believing what they had was real.

Everything she liked, he liked.

Once Shaun told her it was very cold in Afghanistan and asked if she'd buy him a jacket and send it to his cousin who'd be joining him there soon.

He wanted to come to New Zealand to see Susan but needed her to complete a Military Vacation application which would require all her personal details, a copy of her passport and cost $7000.

Shaun promised this was only a loan and he'd repay her when he got to New Zealand.

On the day he was set to arrive, Susan went to meet him at the airport. He never showed.

Soon after, she got an email from a doctor in Malaysia who said Shaun had been injured on his stopover and was in hospital. They needed money or they'd stop treating him.

Among the attachments were photos of Shaun in a hospital bed and hospital invoices for $25,000.

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She now realises these were fake but at the time she was panicked so sent the money.

Apparently on the mend, Shaun got back in touch with Susan and told her his bank cards were frozen so he'd need another $10,000 to book new flights.

Again, he swore to repay her when he got to New Zealand.

Meanwhile, Susan's friends were concerned as she'd grown increasingly secretive and so they got in touch with the Commission for Financial Capability.

They were able to show Susan she'd been the victim of romance fraud, the commission's fraud education manager Bronwyn Groot said.

"Susan ended up losing $42,500 of her savings, and also had to face the fact that the person she had made such a strong emotional connection with over six months wasn't real. She suffered financially and emotionally."

Scam victims can be anyone

Kiwis under 40 lost almost $1 million to romance fraud, agencies warn about the rise in scammers targeting victims through dating apps.

Three of the victims were aged between 18 and 21 years old, who on average lost $12,310.

Netsafe released the figures to the Herald ahead of Valentine's Day to help remind New Zealanders that anyone can fall victim to scams.

"The research shows that essentially the more time you spend online, the more likely you are to eventually become the victim of a scam," chief executive Martin Cocker said.

The number of reports about romance fraud to the online safety organisation leapt 55 per cent between 2018 and 2019.

The average loss reported to Netsafe's helpline during this period was $31,239.84 per victim and the total was $4.1 million.

In that same time, there was a near 200 per cent increase in the number of young people falling victim.

But the typical romance scam victim is female, from Auckland, and aged between 41 and 64.

Martin Cocker, chief executive of Netsafe.
Martin Cocker, chief executive of Netsafe.

Cocker said romance frauds were especially traumatic as often the victim was vulnerable at the beginning, then had to deal with the financial loss, but also losing someone who they believed was their partner.

And one of the problems with romance fraud is the victim blaming, he said.

"There's a real horribleness that comes with it.

"You can understand why people don't want to talk about it ... the initial reaction from people when they're told someone fell for a romance scam is that person must have been foolish."

The reality is scammers are very sophisticated, manipulative and convincing, Cocker said.

"It would be great if we could remove that stigma from it."

Bronwyn Groot, fraud education manager at the Commission for Financial Capability, said they were also keen to remove blame from victims and place it where it belongs – with the fraudsters.

"Scam victims have a crime committed against them and deserve the same respect and support as any other fraud victim.

Groot said no-one was immune from being scammed and everyone should remain vigilant.

"The biggest mistake we can make is thinking 'it won't happen to me'."

Groot said it was no longer just older people being targeted through dating websites, as now young singles are being approached through social media and apps like Tinder and Grinder.

"The scammers can research the background and interests of their victims through their social media accounts so they sound like the perfect partner.

"It's very hard to tell the difference between a serious approach and a scam."

Usually the scam starts on a legitimate dating website - and sometimes a dating app - then the fraudster convinces their target to move off the security of the platform.

The money is often requested in untraceable ways, like a money order or prepaid card.

Cocker said the best way to avoid being caught up in a romance scam is to be cautious who you communicate with online and never respond to requests or hints for money from someone you haven't met in person.

"If you think you're being scammed you should stop all contact and avoid sending further payments."

HOW TO AVOID ROMANCE SCAMS

• Be cautious about who you communicate with online.

• Don't respond to requests or hints for money.

• Never send money to anyone you don't know or haven't met in person.

• Avoid giving out personal details that could be used to impersonate you.

• If you think you're being scammed, stop all contact and avoid sending further payments.

Contact Netsafe for free and confidential advice if you feel something isn't quite right.