One year ago, 61-year-old Jennifer Chen* from Victoria in Australia received a Facebook friend request from an attractive US doctor named Frank Harrison. Being an acupuncture therapist, she was used to receiving messages from potential clients. But what seemed like a harmless request ended up costing Jennifer over $570,000.
You see, Dr Frank Harrison was actually the ringleader of a sophisticated team of African scammers, who also created profiles claiming to be a US orthopaedic surgeon named Michelle Tan, a customs officer from Malaysia and a man named Raja Bin Abudullah, who worked for OCBC Malaysia Bank.
The scam started in November, two months after Jennifer accepted the friend request, when she received a message from “Dr Harrison” who informed her of his plans to move to Australia to start a business. He wanted to meet her in person.
Image credit: news.com.au
“In early November I got a phone call from him,” she told news.com.au. “He told me, ‘I’m at the airport in [Kuala Lumpur], 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.’”
After his story was backed up by a customs officer, Jennifer agreed to transfer the $3,000 “penalty fee” in order to release Dr Harrison and his money. In the six months that followed, the scammers managed to extract a staggering 33 payments from Jennifer supposedly covering everything from security fees and stamp duty to legal costs and GST.
“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 my husband. Finally I had to tell my husband I made a big mistake.”
By the time she fessed up, Jennifer had already parted with a whopping $571,000 – her entire life savings, plus some of her husband’s super funds.
Mr Chen blamed his wife’s naivety on her upbringing in Commuist China, but warns all Aussies may be at risk. “The scammers used Facebook information to pick their targets,” he explained. “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.”
Unfortunately for the Chens, it’s unlikely they’ll ever see their money again. They now join the long list of 200,000 reports of money lost due to cybercrime, totalling almost $300 million – but the Australian Bureau of Statistics believes that number may really be as high as $3 billion, since so many people fail to report these scams.
*Name has been changed.