A new wave of romantic scammers are targeting victims on the online game Words With Friends, leaving one Kiwi woman $60,000 out of pocket.
The game, owned by American social game developer Zynga, is similar to Scrabble in that players build words in a crossword-style against an opponent online.
Once signed up as a member, a player can send game requests and accept them from others around the world and players can chat to one another.
But that messaging feature is now being used by scammers posing behind fake profiles, who attempt to woo players in the hope they will eventually send them money.
The Sydney Morning Herald reported earlier this month that a scammer using the name Richard Bricks was using a photo of Argentinian actor Juan Soler in his pursuits on Words with Friends.
Manager of Fraud Education at the Commission for Financial Capability, Bronwyn Groot, said scammers often told their victims “lots of beautiful things” and sent links to love songs by artists including Celine Dion.
“Their poetry is cut and paste, whether they take it from a Hallmark cards website – I don’t know, but you put it into Google and it links it back to tonnes of scams.”
The scammers call their victims ‘dear’ or ‘darling’, seldom using their first name.
“Probably because they’re running multiple scams and they don’t want to get caught out,” Groot said.
The scammers use a similar narrative; they are working on an oil rig overseas, or for the United Nations in places such as Afghanistan or Syria. Some have lost family members, or their wives have died and they are widowed.
Groot said one woman she dealt with, who couldn’t be named, lost around $60,000 to a romantic scammer on the Words With Friends game.
“She got an invitation to accept someone’s friendship and she didn’t accept it, then they reached out again and she didn’t accept it, then the third time they said ‘why don’t you wanna talk to me?’ and she said, ‘because I don’t know you’ and that was how the conversation started,” Groot said.
“It was only a few months, but it was a few months long enough for her to think he was legitimate and also send him lots of money.”
Once somebody gets caught up in a romantic scam it can be really difficult to get out of and often the victim will be in denial, Groot said.
“The lady I was dealing with so desperately wanted to believe it was real,” she said.
“It is devastating … she had sent the money and had no chance of getting it back, then had to face the reality of having lost someone she had a romantic connection with.”
It is unclear how many New Zealand Words With Friends players have been targeted, but the game’s discussion forums are teeming with warnings and scam stories from players.
One player wrote about her experience of getting “involved” with another member.
“We ‘met’ on WWF in April and he used all the sweet talk, when I questioned things, he always had the right answers that seemed to make sense at the time and he was so smooth at convincing me it was all in my head,” she wrote.
“I should have listened to my little voice but I am embarrassed to say I was convinced.”
The profile which scammed $60,000 from the Kiwi woman is still active on the site and Groot had doubts about whether Zygna was adequately addressing the problem.
Groot’s concerns were echoed on the Zygna discussion forums.
“It is disappointing that Zynga appears to do nothing to stop this. Every user I have reported is still active … I even provided sources of information found,” one player wrote.
Detective Senior Sergeant Greg Dalziel, of the High Tech Crime Group, said police regularly received reports of scams but their frequency and the way in which scammers operated varied.
“Sadly there will always be some people who try to use online sites to scam and rip people off for money, and we advise that people always exercise caution when interacting online.”
Anyone who believes they are the victim of a crime, in person or online, should report the matter to police, he added.
Zynga was approached for comment but said they were “unable to provide comment at this time”.