How loneliness can put people more at risk of being scammed

Many people have felt lonely or isolated during the pandemic – and in some cases, it can leave them more at risk of being scammed.

Having a trusted second opinion – whether it’s about someone you’ve met online, or a cold caller claiming to be from your bank – can stop scams in their tracks.

The increased loneliness caused by the COVID-19 pandemic was one of the drivers behind Australians losing more than $200 million to romance scammers last year.

Read: We need to talk about loneliness

Australian Competition and Consumer Commission deputy chair Delia Rickard said the losses looked likely to be 44 per cent higher than the $131 million estimated in 2020. The figures are based on reports to the competition watchdog’s Scamwatch, as well as other sources such as the losses reported to banks.

“The pandemic has made it easier for the scammer to come up with excuses for why they can’t meet you in person,” Ms Rickard said.

“I think also people have been lonelier, with all of the lockdowns and clubs and other places where you normally meet people closing down, people have been turning more and more to online to find companionship.”

Ed Fisher, head of fraud policy at Nationwide Building Society in the UK, says: “We’re all suggestible to a degree. Loneliness and isolation might exacerbate it, because you haven’t got somebody to talk it through with. You can’t just turn to your husband, wife or partner and say: ‘I’ve just had a call from the bank’.

“And they can’t independently say: ‘Well that sounds odd, what did they say?’ You don’t have that checkpoint.”

Mr Fisher explains that fraudsters might play on people’s sense of confusion about what is really happening, and put them in a “fight or flight state” – giving the false impression there is an emergency, and they need to act quickly.

A romance scammer might invent a sob story about why they need cash urgently, or fraudsters posing as bank staff could say their victim needs to transfer money quickly into a “safe account”, for example.

Mr Fisher adds: “They’re tapping into an emotional response you might have. It could be fear that they use, it could be love, it could be a number of different things. If there’s any form of confusion, you’re much more likely to trust someone who sounds confident or kind.

“Trust can be built up over time, or it can be built quickly. Scammers are quite skilled at finding the right buttons to push.”

Sometimes, it can take time to convince people they have been scammed, Mr Fisher says. And it might take some time for them to understand and accept what has happened.

One trend that is on the rise is social media messaging scams, where a fraudster pretends to be someone the person knows, asking them to add new contact details and delete the old number they have for them.

Read: How to recognise the latest online scams and keep the thieves at bay

“They’re forcing you to cease contact with the actual person, and they’re creating this random new contact from a number you haven’t seen before,” Mr Fisher explains.

Friends talking while looking at their phones
Talking to a friend might help you realise if something is a scam. (Alamy/PA)

However, scams are not always carried out by strangers. Mr Fisher says: “We have some heartbreaking cases where it turns out to be someone they know, or someone that’s linked to them somehow.”

Fraudsters may befriend people, potentially by offering to do their shopping for them, but using their card to withdraw funds for themselves instead. Mr Fisher says: “They might appear to almost be your saviour, because you’re on your own.”

Read: What older Australians want you to know about loneliness

Whatever the situation, talking things through and making loved ones become aware of the latest scams can help them find safe ways to get support.

Mr Fisher adds: “This is all about a mutual responsibility for everybody. If we can have more human conversations, then together we will be able to protect people and disrupt these awful scams.”

– With PA

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