Sandra* was recently divorced and looking for companionship when she set up a profile with a reputable website for dating online over 40.
"My kids had moved out and I was feeling pretty lonely at the time," she says. "This seemed like a great way to meet new people."
Sandra was in luck – within hours of setting up her profile she was contacted by a most amazing man; one who happened to share her interests, passions and goals.
Sure, he lived interstate and was having financial difficulties – a result of a messy divorce of his own – but he was determined to fly to Sydney to meet her… if only he could scrape together the cash.
"I sent him a couple of thousand initially to cover the first flight, but then, when something came up and that money got sunk into the court case, I sent him more and more still."
Six months later, Sandra found herself some $30,000 poorer and alone – she was the victim of a Nigerian online dating scam.
"Losing the money was tough, but it's the betrayal that haunts me more than anything else."
Sadly, Sandra is not the exception. Baby boomers are the fastest growing user groups of online dating, with Australian dating website RSVP claiming adults aged 50-plus represent 22 per cent of its members.
But for every couple falling in love, there are many falling victim to scams, with romance-related fraud costing Aussies $25.2 million last year – up eight per cent on the previous year, according to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC).
The most frightening aspect? This money almost impossible to recover, and the older you are, the more likely you are to be targeted, says ACCC deputy chair Delia Rickard.
"The over-45s are considered gold for crime syndicates because not only are they more likely to be divorced, widowed and vulnerable, there's a greater likelihood they'll have a decent sum of money in the bank they can send across."
These types of scams often unfold in the same way: scammers target victims by creating fake profiles on a variety of dating sites.
Once you've exchanged a few messages, they'll express strong feelings for you and suggest you move the relationship away from the website to email, instant messaging and phone.
There, they'll work at building your trust and lowering your defences.
"These people will have spent time researching you – whether it be through your dating profile, social media or other – so they can start off on the right foot with you," says Delia.
"They will then spend weeks, months and sometimes even years grooming you before that first request comes, so that by the time they need money for something, like a sick child's medical care, you feel a connection and a need to provide."
￼ Warning signs
Luckily, there are clues that can help you sniff out a scam, long before any money changes hands. These include:
Their profile picture looks like it's from a magazine or seems at odds with their description.
They live interstate or overseas working for the military or in mining (thus providing a great cover as to why they can't see you in person).
Emails are poorly written, vague and reveal very little personal information.
They'll organise to meet you or Skype but will cancel at the last minute.
They'll tell you an elaborate story and ask for money. "And that's just it – they'll always ask you for money. That's your biggest clue," says Delia.
Play it safe
Whenever you meet someone online, the first thing you should do is enter their photo into Google image search.
"This will help determine they are who they say they are," says Delia.
Other ways to protect yourself include:
Never give credit card or online account details to anyone via email.
Be careful about how much personal information you share online.
Never send money to anyone you haven't actually met in person.
Think you've been scammed? Contact your financial institution immediately and report it to ACCC's SCAMwatch on 1300 795 995, or at scamwatch.gov.au