When Olivia* matched with a man named McCarthy on a dating website, she thought she had found the one.
But what the Melbourne woman didn’t know at the time, she was about to get caught up in an “extremely traumatic” exchange with a professional “romance scammer”.
“He started with this real sob story,” Olivia told 7NEWS.com.au.
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“And I really felt for him, he told me he grew up without much of a family, that his parents had died when he was young and that he was divorced after his wife cheated on him.”
Olivia began talking to McCarthy, who claimed he was from Canada, in February last year.
A relationship quickly blossomed between the pair, who would talk every day both over message and voice calls.
“He told me he wanted to meet people in Melbourne as he was moving over here soon,” she said.
“He even sent me a photo of his plane ticket to Melbourne that had his name on it.”
Olivia was elated at the news he was moving over to her city.
But things started to take a turn when he refused her request for a video chat.
“That’s when I became quite suspicious, and I thought that was strange that he wouldn’t want to show himself because he would always send me photos of himself,” she said.
“And he was a very good-looking person.
“So, I thought ‘why would you be scared to have a video call with me after talking with me for months?’”
Things became stranger when McCarthy told Olivia he had started receiving death threats from a group of men.
“The first few months were really nice, but then it started to get really traumatic,” she said.
“He was saying he was getting threatened by these men that had lent him money when a business venture went wrong.”
And then, the photos started coming through.
Olivia received “horrific” images from McCarthy with bruises all over his body.
“He sent me photos of a time he said these men had broken into his house and beaten him up,” she said.
“And he used to send me photos all the time of his cute little dog.
“But this time he sent photos of his dog on the side of the road and said the people that were threatening him had run his dog over.”
Things took an even more sinister turn in April, when Olivia received a message that she said made her “cry for weeks”.
“He sent a photo of himself in this dark room, and it looked like he’d been beaten up, he had bruises all over his ribs,” she said.
“It was quite intense.
“He said these people had kidnapped him, and locked him up in the room, and that they were going to kill him, unless I sent him $US140k.”
Olivia said it was at this point she realised the man she had been speaking to every day for months, was a professional romance scammer.
“I realised it was a scam and refused to give him any money,” she said.
“I felt absolutely devastated, I had hoped that he was a genuine person.
“It took weeks to stop crying after that, I felt as if I was in mourning.”
But Olivia says she believes he is still out there, preying on other women.
Olivia fears that despite reporting McCarthy to the dating website and having his profile taken offline, he is doing the same thing on other websites.
“He’s definitely doing it to more people,” she said.
“I would just hope women aren’t silly enough to fall into the trap of these sorts of things.
“But it’s made me not want to date again it was so traumatic, I don’t want to get involved with anyone online again.”
Olivia advises other women to never get involved with anyone who refuses a video call or refuses to meet in person.
“These people might not be who they say they are,” she said.
“And definitely never ever give money to anyone.
“I’m just so glad I never did.”
A real threat
In 2021 alone, more than 3400 dating and romance scams were reported to the ACCC.
It said scammers often use ‘love bombing’ techniques, such as professing love and affection very quickly to try to influence victims.
AFP Commander Cybercrime Operations Chris Goldsmid said criminals will invest a significant amount of time – sometimes years – building what seems to be a “legitimate relationship with their victim”.
“They will express their love for the victim and, in some cases, promise marriage but will often have a complicated story about why they cannot meet in person.
“Anyone can be a target and they will use a range of extravagant excuses to pull on their victim’s heartstrings.
“Romance scams are a common method for criminals to enlist money mules because they put pressure on them emotionally.”
People who believe they have been lured into being a money mule should report it to Report Cyber and notify their banks immediately.
*not her real name