New ACCC guidelines to protect consumers of online dating sites
If you think that the only people vulnerable to online scams are
retirees lacking a certain internet savviness or gullible folk
willingly to part with sensitive financial information to the
Nigerian Central Bank, think again.
In response to a significant increase in scams perpetrated
online through dating and romance (D&R)
websites, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission
(ACCC) has released voluntary best practice
guidelines to assist website operators with an aim towards a high
standard of consumer protection across the whole online dating
The message from the ACCC is that anyone can fall for a
In 2011, the ACCC received 2100 reports of D&R website
scams, with consumers reporting $21 million in losses.
Online scammers create false profiles on popular D&R
websites or chat rooms, sometimes taking months to develop
relationships and build trust with their victims who are legitimate
users of the D&R website. After establishing the connection
with the victim, the scammers typically request money or personal
information as part of a narrative designed to defraud innocent
With the money lost to online scams being almost impossible to
recover, this is a significant problem for Australian consumers and
one that website operators can do more to curtail.
The new ACCC guidelines propose a flexible set of actions for
implementation by D&R website operators to improve their
response to scams.
The guidelines recommend that D&R website operators
establish robust vetting systems to identify scammers and to
monitor common behavioural characteristics of scammers. The ACCC
encourages site operators to be on the look-out for common phrases
and profile pictures used in scammer profiles, IP addresses of
people accessing dating sites from overseas, proxy servers which
avoid IP detection, and an unusual amount of messages sent by users
in a short time.
The ACCC recommends that D&R sites display clear warning
messages in prominent locations on the sites to facilitate maximum
exposure to users and that site operators establish complaint
handling procedures, including an easily accessible mechanism to
report a scam, together with comprehensive support services. The
guidelines call for the institution of a policy of referral of
scamming complaints to the ACCC, and users should be reminded to
contact their financial intuitions if they have already sent money
or disclosed personal information. Further, the ACCC recommends
that once an incident is reported, D&R website operators should
notify other users who have been contacted by that person.
Common features of scams are that scammers encourage users to
communicate in forums outside of the dating website where they are
introduced to legitimate users and that after a relationship has
been established, scammers request for money for all sorts of
things including medical treatment, business proposals or flights
to visit the victim.
While some scammers may express strong romantic feelings after
only a short period of time, the ACCC points out that some scams
are sophisticated and are orchestrated by international crime
networks, where scammers are patient, waiting months before
attempting to scam victims.
The ACCC encourages D&R website users to identify when
someone's profile picture looks different to their description
or if what someone says about themselves does not match their
website profile. These may be signs that the profile has been
created by a fake user. Of course, these may also be signs that
Darryl from Maroubra is not in fact 35 years old and did not think
it wise to mention to Danielle from Kempsey (who enjoys jazzercise)
that he has a passion for cicada shells.
The key take away message - D&R website consumers must be
aware of the increasing number of scammers that monitor and operate
on these sites and never disclose personal or financial information
online without strict security protections.
If you are a victim of a D&R website scam, you can report it
to the ACCC through
Businesses that rely on email or SMS for marketing purposes need to be aware of, and comply with, the Spam Act 2003.
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