A Gympie author who fell victim to an online dating scam is helping others come to terms with being caught up in a fraud.
Last year 2,620 Australians reported losing almost $23 million to dating and romance scams, according to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC).
Gympie author Elina Juusola understands what it means to be scammed online.
Ms Juusola absentmindedly followed a link on Facebook and completed an online dating form.
The result was that she ended up being the target of a romance scam.
“Nearly one quarter of reported romance scams originate on social media, in particular Facebook,” ACCC deputy chair Delia Rickard said.
Ms Juusola said she began emailing a man claiming to be a soldier in Afghanistan, but became suspicious when he started asking her for money.
She asked her son in London to look into it and he quickly confirmed her suspicions.
“I felt fooled, I felt a fool myself … how could this happen to me?” Ms Juusola said.
It can happen to anyone
Ms Juusola said she was surprised she fell victim to an online scam because she had always considered herself to be a savvy, well-educated person.
Originally from Scandinavia, she spent many years as a researcher and campaigner of women’s rights in Europe.
“I researched pornography, prostitution and violence against women,” she said.
“I was part of the second wave of feminism, and in the 1980s pornography was a big issue in Europe.
“I went around the world for about 15 years talking about violence against women.”
But as Ms Juusola has since learnt, anyone can be targeted. The scammers are manipulative and prey on people’s emotional vulnerabilities.
“It’s all about the emotions, it’s all about finding that vulnerability in the target, like me,” Ms Juusola said.
“At the time when this happened to me I was probably very vulnerable because my mum had died very recently and I had been diagnosed with fibromyalgia, so I was pretty down.
“This is something that can happen to anyone. There is no real profile.”
Ms Rickard said scammers were experts at preying on people’s weaknesses, and would spend months and even years grooming victims and lowering their defences.
“Inevitably, the fraudster will spin a tall tale about why they suddenly need your financial help, ranging from medical emergencies to failed business ventures to needing to rebook flights to visit you,” Ms Rickard said.
“Once victims realise that their admirer is actually a criminal, the emotional consequences can be devastating.”
Helping others to recover
Ms Juusola said in order to recover from her own ordeal, she decided to research romance scams online and write about her own experience.
Her resulting book is Love on the line: How to recover from romance scams with dignity and without victimisation.
“In the end I decided that this is a such a huge and important issue that I’d better write a book, because I am not ashamed of what happened,” she said.
Ms Juusola said when she began to critically analyse how romance scams worked, she was surprised to find parallels with her past research into pornography.
She started to see similar patterns of behaviour.
“So in the book I actually compare reading romance books and watching porn, and what the scammers do,” Ms Juusola said.
She said through publishing her book she was keen to help others who had been through a similar ordeal to her own.
The author said writing and research helped her own recovery, and she was now in the process of developing workshops that could help others recover from their victimisation.
“The people who have been targeted, they are very shy to come forward and talk about this issue, and I understand it because there is a lot of shame involved,” Ms Juusola said.
“But I urge people to talk about this issue.”
Ms Juusola will be giving an author talk at Hervey Bay Library on Friday at 10am.