By the time Jan Marshall, an online dating scam victim from Melbourne, realised that ‘'Eamon Donegal Dubhlainn” did not exist she had already lost $260,000 in life savings, become isolated from her family and friends, and was spiralling down a dangerous path of self-loathing and isolation. It wasn’t until she stopped blaming herself that she was able to turn it all around.

WYZA® spoke with the anti-fraud ambassador to talk about her experience, her long road to recovery, and how she’s now helping other Australians to avoid making the same mistake.

It took only 72 days for Jan to fall prey to an international romance scam but years to come to terms with what had happened.

In 2012, 62-year old Jan moved from Brisbane to Melbourne for work and to be closer to family. She was looking for companionship, someone with whom she could explore Victoria, when she decided to try online dating for the first time.

Jan joined free dating website Plenty of Fish and almost immediately she was approached by a man called “Eamon”, who was posing as a lonely engineer from the UK.

“I didn’t have a lot of experience with online dating, and I certainly didn’t have awareness that people would be out to get you. So I took it on face value and I responded to the initial declarations of interest and affection and eventually love,” says Jan.

Through emotional manipulation the scammer started to earn Jan's trust and worked his way into her heart

First, he would reveal intimate details about himself, laying the groundwork for Jan to do the same. Then talked about what they liked and didn’t like, their interests, passions and previous relationships. Above all he made Jan feel special and loved.

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It was too late when Jan realised she had been scammed, losing a total of $260,000
(Photo: David Smith via Romance Scam Survivor)

“By the time he popped the question, ‘Would you marry someone like me?’ I said yes,” Jan admits. “And that’s exactly what they want to do, they want to get you into that state because they know that when you’re in that state they can manipulate.”

Her scammer was persistent, too. He would email and message Jan at all hours, and this left her sleep deprived.

Eventually he managed to isolate her from family and friends. “They get you to the point where you don’t have any control. If there’s anybody out there who’s trying to warn you—and I did have friends who were trying to warn me—they [the scammers] are pretty skilled at separating you from those people. And whether you like it or not you just retract,” she says.

By the time Jan realised she was part of an elaborate financial scam it was too late. She had already lost $260,000. Jan was told the money was for business ventures in Dubai and Europe.

“It was always supposed to be a loan, and that I would get the money back,” Jan explains. “When you are in love with them you trust them, you are generous to them, you want them to be happy, and when they raise issues with you, you help them. The same way you would with any family member.”

“It wasn’t until that man broke contact with me that I realised it was a scam.” While Jan reported the incident to Victorian police, who eventually traced the scam back to Nigeria, she says she doesn’t expect to ever see the money again.

“Luckily I was working at the time and that enabled me to deal with some of the financial issues but I still am not able to recover financially from that.”

“I was retrenched from my job, so I spent about 14 months unemployed. I had to borrow money from friends. I got hardship money out of the little bit of super I had left, and that got me through, and I’ve since started another job. But there’s still credit card debt and tax debt,” she says.

“Many of the people I’ve spoken to talk about the fact that financially they can never recover.”

As the official ambassador for ACORN, a police service that tracks and investigates online crime, Jan is hoping her story will prevent others from making the same mistake. She has also set up a blog, Romance Scam Survivor, dedicated to the cause, and launched a support group and meet-up for victims and vulnerable individuals.

Going public with her story was challenging at first, says Jan. “Initially like many others I really blamed myself. You think you have done wrong, and the attitude of society is that you’ve allowed yourself to be tricked.”

“What I realised as I researched scams and what happens in scams is that actually I’d been manipulated by professionals—skilled professionals—and it’s much, much more than a trick. It’s deliberate and criminal fraud,” Jan says.

“So coming to terms with that helped me to realise that it wasn’t something that I had done, and when I understood how the scammers worked I was able to turn it around from blaming myself to starting to speak out about it.”

Last year, the ACCC received 2620 Australian reports of romance scams, with a total of $22.7 million lost in online dating fraud incidents.

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People aged 55 to 64 were the most likely to lose money in romance scams in 2015
(Source: ACCC)

However experts say the figures are a gross underestimate, as many victims are too embarrassed or reluctant to report scams.

“Romance scams continue to cause significant emotional and financial harm to the community. We know these figures are only the tip of the iceberg,” said ACCC Deputy Chair Delia Rickard in a statement realeased earlier this year.

Nearly one in four of the reported romance scams started on social media, particularly Facebook. However, online dating sites are also popular with con artists.

“If online dating sites don’t have advice about safe dating practices, then consumers should carefully consider whether those sites have their best interests at heart,” Ms Rickard said.

Protect yourself online

  • Never provide your financial details or send funds to someone you’ve met online.
  • Run a Google Image search to check the authenticity of any photos provided as scammers often use fake photos they’ve found online.
  • Be very wary if you are moved off a dating website as scammers prefer to correspond through private emails or the phone to avoid detection.
  • Don’t share photos or webcam of a private nature. The ACCC has received reports of scammers using this material to blackmail victims.

If you think you have fallen victim to a fraudster, contact your bank or financial institution immediately and report it to:

Have you been a victim of an online scam, or know someone who has? Let us know in the comments below.

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