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Colin was left devastated after a romance scam drained his life savings, but the Melbourne man is now part of a world-first fraud victim recovery program to help those who were conned to get back on their feet.
Under the program, which will launch a pilot next year, scam survivors share their stories with other victims to tackle the unique, debilitating shame and humiliation that comes with being defrauded – a crime that costs Australians billions of dollars each year.
Clinical neuropsychologist Dr Kate Gould and scam victim turned advocate Colin.Credit: Simon Schluter
The treatment, led by Monash University researchers, will include group therapy supported by scam-victims-turned-ambassadors, like 59-year-old Colin.
Clinical neuropsychologist Dr Kate Gould said it took Colin, who has a traumatic brain injury from a motorbike accident, almost a year to recognise his online relationship was not real.
“Thinking back to this, I feel embarrassed and think I was a fool,” said Colin, who asked that his surname be withheld for privacy reasons.
Over the years, Gould and her colleagues have supported clients through distressing scams, including a woman with an acquired brain injury who flew to Africa to meet a stranger and had to be rescued by the Australian Federal Police.
“She had difficulty really understanding how serious that situation was and why her children were so worried,” Gould said.
In another case, a woman with a brain injury and living in supported accommodation, was scammed by several men on the sex offender registry, who were pressuring her to give them all her money and buy their groceries. She ended up falling pregnant to one of the men.
Gould also treated a man who was scammed online by a woman overseas and was left so traumatised by the ordeal he stopped trusting all the women in his life, leading him to become estranged from his family.
“It’s such a serious crime and there’s so many other repercussions and people with brain injury and other vulnerabilities are disproportionately affected,” Gould said.
Australians lost a record $3.1 billion to scams last year. The AFP this year warned that criminals were increasingly using dating apps for romance scams, scouring for victims to financially defraud, launder money or transport illicit drugs.
Techniques to help if you have been scammed:
Immediately report the scam to authorities
Become a scam ambassador by sharing your story. Neuropsychologist Dr Kate Gould said sharing your experience with others, who have been scammed, or helping protect people from being conned in the future was the best way to re-build up your self esteem.
Ensure you have ongoing psychological and emotional support in the aftermath. This can include speaking to a professional to process the betrayal, or joining a support group of other victim/survivors, like the one at Cyberability.
Acknowledge and process your emotions including anger, shame, and grief. Understand that being scammed is one of the most stressful times in a person’s life and that you are not alone: it happens to thousands of Australians every year.
Colin was lonely and depressed when he met “Doris” on an online dating website in 2005. For two years, Colin and Doris –who claimed to be a Canadian nurse living in Ghana – spoke online, sharing stories and photos of their lives.
He thought they were in love. Doris told him she was moving to Australia and convinced him to send her tens of thousands of dollars to invest in a gold scheme. The requests for money escalated until he was left with $60 in the bank.
Gould said she was shocked by the lack of resources and research available to help Colin and other scam victims recover psychologically.
“Often people who have fallen victim to a scam can get very stuck, they might get stuck in anger, or they might get stuck in disbelief,” she said. “For Col, it was a double hit from the emotional impact of the loss of the relationship, the embarrassment and shame that followed and then the financial fallout.”
Colin was the catalyst for more than a decade of research that has seen Gould and her colleagues, including Professor Jennie Ponsford and PhD candidate Kimberly Chew, develop free resources and techniques such as early intervention and prevention programs to help people avoid and recover from fraud.
But what they discovered through their years of research was that the best therapy of all was being in a room and sharing their experiences with others who had also been conned.
“For many victims, it really led to some lightbulb moments after hearing Colin’s story,” Gould said.
“And through people sharing their own distressing experiences, they were able to help others and create something together that was about protecting people from being scammed and supporting each other. They felt really valued, validated and empowered.”
One scam survivor said the support group had made them feel like they were medicating themselves “from this cyber scam illness that was living with me”.
Experts warn Australians were attuned to phishing emails and SMS scams, which meant tactics to build rapport and manipulate people were becoming increasingly sophisticated.
Gould, a senior research fellow at the Monash-Epworth Rehabilitation Research Centre and the Turner Institute for Brain and Mental Health, said while those with brain injuries were particularly vulnerable to scams, there was little global research and support.
Often scam victims lose their entire life savings or compensation payouts. The researchers’ work is being supported by the Transport Accident Commission and the National Anti-Scam Centre.
For Colin, sharing his story has not only given him back his self-worth, but the sense that he is now protecting others from being scammed.
“I feel vindicated,” said the father-of two, who is now studying a masters of disability and inclusion. “And also, I am unscammable now.”
For more details, visit cyberability.org.au
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