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Scams and swindles

Online dating scam victim’s tips to avoid heartbreak and losing millions of dollars

In her book Fool Me Twice, Hong Kong-based Australian Jules Hannaford candidly shares her online dating scam stories

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 September, 2018, 8:49pm
UPDATED : Monday, 10 September, 2018, 8:55pm

Jules Hannaford holds her head high as she walks into a Hong Kong coffee shop smiling broadly.

“I have a book signing this afternoon,” she says. “It’s pretty exciting.”

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Fool Me Twice: Confessions of a Perpetual Internet Dating Neophyte, released last month on Amazon and Barnes & Noble, is a candid memoir in which Hannaford exposes her heart and soul, and, at times, her naivety.

“Yeah, scammed not once but twice,” says Hannaford.

On the first occasion, the Australian allowed a man in the United States to abuse her credit card after she fell for his financial sob stories. The second time Hannaford was conned, in 2010, proved more costly.

She swallowed the bait after seeing a profile on an online dating site that read: “Truman, aged 35 from Manchester, United Kingdom. Occupation: construction/trades.”

“I took Truman at face value without doing due diligence. I’m a trusting person so I think others will be the same,” says Hannaford, who grew up on a farm in South Australia and works in an international school in Hong Kong.

In the book she shares email exchanges between herself and Truman, the pages updated with comments from a wiser Hannaford, who highlights the red flags that she failed to notice or, in some cases, refused to notice even though they were fluttering in front of her.

“He was going to come to Hong Kong but couldn’t because of his businesses [red flag]. He also talked about being a victim of dating scams [red flag], told me he loved me [red flag].”

After emailing for two months, Hannaford visits Truman in Britain, and a pattern of money lending and fear starts; it lasts a week and ends with her trapped in a hotel room scared for her life.

Hannaford says that, although it took time to find the courage to write the book, the experience has been cathartic. Now she wants it to be a cautionary tale for other lonely hearts who look for dates online.

“What’s interesting about my story is a lot of people who are victims of online dating scams usually don’t meet the people who scam them. It’s all done online with a familiar pattern: ‘I love you, there’s been an emergency, please send me money’.

“In my case, Truman used his correct picture but he wasn’t using his real name, wasn’t from where he said he was from, and wasn’t in the work he said he was in. Everything about him, apart from the profile picture, was a lie.”

When her ordeal was over, she learned from police that Truman was a career criminal with more than 20 aliases and a rap sheet dating back to the 1990s. She had lost a significant amount of money, she says.

What’s interesting about my story is a lot of people who are victims of online dating scams usually don’t meet the people who scam them. It’s all done online with a familiar pattern
Author Jules Hannaford

“Red flag” is a phrase Hannaford uses often, and she outlines many in the book. They include: be wary if suitors have only one profile picture, say they are widowed, do not share social media details, refuse to Skype face to face, say their partner died recently from cancer … the list goes on.

Hannaford advises people to meet “online lovers” in person in their own country, have video chats and be extra careful of relationships involving money transfers. Her advice might sound obvious, but a growing number of people are falling prey to dating scams, Hongkongers included.

Last week a 66-year-old businesswoman was revealed as Hong Kong’s biggest victim of an online romance scam after being duped out of HK$180 million (US$23 million).

The victim, a “wealthy” widow who runs a real-estate investment company in the city, transferred money to a con artist overseas in a series of transactions over four years. The scammer claimed he needed money urgently for an engineering project, and promised to pay it back after completion of the project.

In the first half of this year, 272 online dating and romance scam cases were reported in the city, up 2.5 times from 78 during the same period in 2017, according to the Anti-Deception Coordination Centre under the Hong Kong Police’s Commercial Crime Bureau.

This year the centre has coordinated 23 operations that resulted in the arrests of 30 suspected scammers, and prevented the remittance of more than HK$500 million.

One of the biggest cases was in November 2017, when Hong Kong and Malaysian police arrested a Kuala Lumpur-based syndicate they say duped 48 Hong Kong women and one elderly man out of HK$29.5 million. In 2016, Hong Kong Police released a videobased on a real-life case, hoping it would raise awareness about romance scams.

Hannaford is also on a mission to raise awareness. Last month she spoke at an event hosted by networking community Metta, attended by 100 people – 70 per cent of them women – and she has shared her story on “Hong Kong Confidential” a podcast series she set up in 2017.

Politicians have spoken out on the subject. Last month, Secretary for Security John Lee Ka-chiu urged the public to be vigilant about dating scams, while Sham Shui Po district councillor Ramon Yuen Hoi-man is supporting victims of a new scam trend in which people are tricked into buying “birthday gifts” costing between HK$1,000 and HK$6,000.

“In these cases scammers buy cheap gifts on [Chinese shopping site] Taobao and then expect the recipient to buy more expensive gifts in return,” Yuen says.

Hong Kong-based dating and relationship coach Valentina Tudose says internet dating scams are a painful reality for many women – and smart professional women are falling prey. Police figures show that women account for 95 per cent of victims, and they generally possess higher academic qualifications, are computer-literate and able to communicate in English.

“Don’t think what happened to Jules could never happen to you,” says Tudose.

Hong Kong’s dating landscape is tough to navigate. People have little free time due to long working hours, and a gender imbalance, with 921 males for every 1,000 females, according to the Census and Statistics Department.

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Cultural factors also come into play, with family pressure to marry and avoid being a“leftover woman” – a derogatory term for unmarried women in their late twenties and beyond.

Hongkonger Ginny Lim, not her real name, is under family pressure to find a husband. She is 32, has a good job in digital marketing, but has never had a serious boyfriend. She has used dating sites but is wary and believes pressure to get married is a reason why so many women fall for romance scams.

“I feel pressure so I’m sure other women do as well,” she says.

Scammers buy cheap gifts on [Chinese shopping site] Taobao and then expect the recipient to buy more expensive gifts in return
Ramon Yuen, district councillor

In the age of dating apps and socially acceptable e-stalking, a new lexicon has evolved. One is catfishing, in which scammers befriend victims through online social platforms, especially dating apps such as Tinder, using fake identities and profiles, and trick them into thinking they are somebody else, as in Hannaford’s case.

Another is ghosting, when someone ends a relationship by disappearing suddenly without explanation, withdrawing from all communication. Hong Kong-based psychotherapist Gabrielle Tuscher is seeing a growing number of young women, some still in their teens, fall victim to ghosting.

“Young girls on dating apps like Tinder and Coffee Meets Bagel think they have met these wonderful guys, they correspond for weeks, book a date and then the guys don’t show up and they don’t get any response. They just vanish,” says Tuscher.

“The impact that can have on a young girl’s self-esteem is devastating.”

Modern dating terms

Catfishing

The term was coined in 2010 when Ariel Schulman released Catfish, a documentary about his brother Nev’s experiences with a woman who pretended to be someone else online.

In the documentary, the woman’s husband explains the title with an anecdote about how fishermen transporting live cod used to put catfish in with the cod on long-haul shipments to keep the desirable cod active and alert until arrival.

The man implied that his wife was like those catfish, keeping the lives of others fresh and interesting. The movie spawned a TV series of the same name.

Zombie-ing

Victims of ghosting may find the culprit who has “vanished” resurfaces some time later out of the blue, acting as though nothing had happened. A zombie might try to re-enter a person’s life by following them and liking their social media posts.

Breadcrumbing

Breadcrumbing means you’re not that interested in someone, but still lead them on with no intent of following through. It may be a guy who you messaged back and forth with, who disappears for weeks, and then sends an ambiguous “Hey, how’s it going?” text.

Or it could be someone you went on a few dates with, who isn’t asking you out again, but will occasionally like one of your photos on Facebook or Instagram, or send you a message that has no significance, other than to pop back into your mind.

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Gaslighting

This involves a person or entity making a victim question their reality in order to gain more power. The term was inspired by the 1938 Patrick Hamilton play Gaslight and its 1940 and 1944 film adaptations, where a husband systematically manipulates his wife to make her feel crazy.