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‘Sunbird’ sheds light on scale of consumer frauds

Protect Sunbird is a long term partnership and collaboration between the Major Fraud Squad and Consumer Protection.

It started as a Police operation (Operation Sunbird) which commenced in 2012 to investigate whether funds transferred from Western Australia to West Africa were as a result of ‘request for money’ scams/frauds. These sophisticated schemes often involve organised criminals connecting with victims online and extensively grooming them in what appears to be a personal relationship.

Early figures compiled between May 2012 and January 2013 by the WA Police show that more than $11 million had been sent to scammers in that period and some individual losses were up to $300,000.

In addition to these shocking statistics there were also recorded losses from self-reporting romance fraud victims who had contacted WA ScamNet at Consumer Protection – these losses added up to about $900,000 in a year.

This is just the tip of the iceberg however as money going to places like Malaysia, the UK, Canada and the US is yet to be examined.

Project Sunbird is about intervention. Victims who repeatedly send large amounts of money to places like Ghana, Nigeria or Sierra Leone are notified that they are caught up in a fraud.
They inevitably find it extremely difficult to accept that the person they have been conversing with, over email and phone for months or sometimes even years, is a con artist. It is useful for them to hear it from two Government agencies and to access support offered by both. Further personal support services for victims are also being sourced.

If you or someone you know has begun a relationship with a person overseas after meeting on an internet dating or social networking website, you have not met them face to face and that person requests money, it will likely be a fraud.

Don’t be fooled by claims that the cash is needed to help out in an emergency situation, to fund an investment opportunity or to pay for an airfare to come to WA. Also be aware that the person running the fraud may not represent themselves as being West African; they may pretend to be Australian, English, American or some other nationality.

WA ScamNet’s top tips to avoid relationship fraud:

  • Do not respond to out-of-the-blue social media messages from strangers, such as a friend request on Facebook.
  • Be on your guard if someone you meet on an online dating site asks you to take the conversation over to email or instant messaging.
  • Be wary of overseas-based singles especially if they confess their love for you after a short amount of time or want to know about your financial status.
  • Remember that just because someone shares personal photos does not mean the pictures are of them – scammers often steal other people’s photos.
  • Don’t be fooled into thinking that talking to somebody on the phone means you know them and that they are who they say there are.
  • Be concerned if a person refuses to chat real-time via a webcam and be mindful that even Skype is not scammer proof – watch out for pre-recorded videos.
  • Alarm bells should ring if someone you do not know personally (have met face-to-face) requests money, particularly by a wire transfer service such as Western Union or even direct bank transfers, which could be going to an account set up with a stolen identity.
  • Anyone who has lost money in a relationship fraud should be very wary of secondary scam attempts e.g. an offer of scam compensation from foreign or domestic law enforcement or government agencies.