‘STUPID’ MISTAKE: How a friend request cost woman $570k
LATE last year, Melbourne woman Jennifer Chen* accepted a friend request from a handsome American doctor named Frank Harrison.
The 61-year-old, originally from China, thought nothing of it, having regularly received messages from men on Facebook where she promoted her acupuncture business.
A year later, that friend request has cost her nearly $600,000.
"I don't know how to explain," she said. "I don't know the real world, what's happening. I've never experience someone cheat me. Many time I want to end my life. I feel hopeless."
Ms Chen, who asked not to use her real name, was the victim of a sophisticated tag-team of scammers playing the roles Dr Frank Harrison, an orthopedic surgeon from the US, Michelle Tan, a Malaysian customs officer, and Raja Bin Abudullah from OCBC Malaysia Bank.
In reality, the group were likely internet scammers from Africa.
The photo of Dr Harrison, stethoscope around his neck, is actually a picture of US weight loss expert Dr Garth Davis from the Methodist Hospital in Houston, Texas, and pops up regularly in fake profiles used by online scammers.
Posting on Facebook earlier this year, Dr Davis warned of fake Instagram accounts using his photo. "This account in the picture is not mine," he wrote. "I also am not on any dating sites. And I do not need you to send me money. Lots of people stealing pics and making fake accounts."
Despite part of the eye-watering sum stolen from Ms Chen being paid to the Commonwealth Bank account of a Victorian-based cleaning supplies company, police say they are powerless to help.
"We have no power, even the police have no power to stop them," Ms Chen said. "The Australian police don't care, [they say], 'It's too hard, too hard.'"
The scam started in early November, two months after Ms Chen was befriended on Facebook by "Dr Harrison", who had told her he was thinking of moving to Australia to start a business and wanted to meet her in person.
"In early November I got a phone call from him," she said. "He told me, 'I'm at the airport in KL, I got in trouble.' I said, 'What kind of trouble?' He said, 'I carried $US1.5 million through customs, they think I'm carrying too much cash. I got big penalty. Please help me.'"
She then received a phone call from a woman calling herself "Michelle Tan". Convinced by the woman on the other end of the phone that Dr Harrison and his $US1.5 million would be released if Ms Chen paid a "penalty fee" of $3000, she finally gave in.
"The customs officer girl, she told me stuff that sounds very true, I really believe," she said.
Starting with that first $3000, the scammers managed to string Ms Chen along for six months, convincing her to make no fewer than 33 payments - $5000 or $10,000 here, $20,000 or $30,000 there - concocting a litany of excuses.
Security fees, stamp duty, demurrage, legal costs, refund fees, GST. Just one more payment, and the $US1.5 million would be released, and all of her money would be repaid.
"I don't know why I'm so stupid," she said. "My psychology is I already pay the money to him, the girl tell me once you pay this you will get the money back, customs will release the luggage to him.
"I didn't wake up, I didn't realise both of them are group scam. I also scared to tell me husband. Finally I had to tell my husband I made a big mistake."
By the time she came clean to her husband, she had paid the scammers a total of $571,000 - her entire life savings, plus some of her husband's superannuation.
Mr Chen, himself originally from Malaysia, blamed his wife's naivety on her upbringing in Communist China. "The scammers used Facebook information to pick their targets," the 62-year-old said. "They have a team that play different roles to manipulate the emotions of the victim. It's just a matter of time [before] they harvest more Australian victims."
Mr Chen said while Malaysian police managed to track down and arrest one of the mules in the northwestern state of Kedah within days, Australian police seemed powerless.
Two of the early payments, one for $10,000 and another for $15,000, were made to the bank account of Laverton North-based cleaning supplies company Statewide Cleaning Cloths Pty Ltd. When contacted by the investigating officer from Victoria Police, the company said it received the payments from Ms Chen as payment from an overseas company.
"This international company informed them that local parties owed them money and were paying off the debt by paying Statewide Cleaning Cloths," the officer told Mr Chen in an email.
"Statewide Cleaning Cloths has refused to identify the company I have no power to demand it of them ... At this stage there is nothing further I can do in relation to this investigation. I am sorry there is nothing further I can do for you."
Statewide Cleaning Cloths Pty Ltd has been contacted for comment. Two other Australian bank accounts into which Ms Chen deposited cash were owned by individuals in NSW and the ACT.
"I have no jurisdiction to take this forward," the Victoria Police officer wrote. "I will be compiling a file which will be sent to the relevant police forces. I'm sure the other police forces will contact you if they make progress with your investigation."
In 2016, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission and the Australian Cybercrime Online Reporting Network together received more than 200,000 reports of online scams, with losses totalling nearly $300 million.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics, however, estimates the total amount lost to personal fraud could be closer to $3 billion, as many victims do not report their experiences.
So-called "Nigerian scams", in which the victim is convinced to pay or transfer money, were the fifth biggest category, with 2255 reports and $15.6 million reported lost last year, according to the ACCC's most recent scam report.
"Scammers who use social media hide behind the anonymity of seemingly legitimate profiles, contact a large number of people and make what appear to be genuine connections," the report said.
"Victims contacted via social media will generally receive a friend request or a private message from someone they have never met before.
"The scammer may pretend to be a friend of a friend or express an interest in meeting new people. They attempt to develop a relationship very quickly with the victim and often urge the victim to move to other online platforms, such as Skype, to continue the scam."