A NSW woman has told how she was tricked into believing she was in an online relationship with Australian actor Alex O’Loughlin as part of a catfishing scam.
All up, Sonia* said she lost $37,000 to the scammers – as well as her pride and dignity.
“I look back at it now and think about how stupid I was,” the 45-year-old from regional NSW told 9news.com.au.
9news.com.au does not suggest in any way O’Loughlin has any connection to scammers.
The traumatic experience began back in November 2020 when Sonia* was first approached on Twitter by an account with the same name as the 46-year-old Hawaii Five-O star.
On her own Twitter account, Sonia mentioned how much she loved Hawaii Five-O and also followed some O’Loughlin fan accounts.
“It was during the pandemic and I just felt alone and I wanted to talk to other people who had the same interests as me,” Sonia said.
When the first Twitter messages came through from the account masquerading as O’Loughlin they were innocuous enough, Sonia said.
“The messages were all about the show and what I liked about it, what I thought of the last two seasons and that kind of stuff,” she said.
Sonia said she soon became convinced that she was speaking with the real O’Loughlin – who is based in the US – because the messages indicated a deep knowledge about Hawaii Five-O and the actor’s life.
“I asked him what his real name was, which is information that you really need to dig for, and he knew it straight away,” Sonia said.
The messages soon grew personal, with the scammer asking Sonia about her life.
At his request, they moved their conversation to WhatsApp, where the conversation became even more flirtatious.
“It was a romance scam and I was being groomed,” Sonia said.
“He would tell me that he was divorcing his wife and looking for the right person for him.
“He told me he was coming back to Australia. He said, ‘I’m gonna go there and see my family and we could meet up.’ But, of course, he never put a date to it.”
Eventually, the scammer posing as O’Loughlin would tell Sonia he was in love with her and wanted her to marry him.
It was after about a month of constant messaging that the scammer made his first mention of money, Sonia said.
The scammer told Sonia he had bought her a Christmas present from a New York jewellery store, which was worth more than $US250,000 ($360,000).
“He showed me the photographs of the jewellery. Of course, you are that overwhelmed with it at the time that you don’t question it…it was very flattering,” Sonia said.
“The catch was that I had to pay a ‘customs fee’ for it to come into Australia.”
Sonia said she forked out $8500 for the customs fee to a “courier” before she realised it was a scam.
But the scammer wasn’t done with Sonia yet.
Sonia said the person posing as O’Loughlin managed to convince her he was a victim of the mailing scam too.
“He played out that he was also scammed and that he felt awful about me being scammed,” she said.
“He said he felt so awful and he wanted me to have a lovely Christmas – so he offered to transfer the same amount of money as the jewellery was worth into a bank account.”
In order to do this, the scammer asked Sonia to set up a bank account, directing her to the website of a fake financial institution called Trust Universal Bank.
Sonia said when she asked the scammer why he couldn’t just transfer the money into her current bank account, he had a ready excuse.
“He said he didn’t want his wife to find out about it as they had a joint account,” Sonia said.
Sonia filled out forms on the fraudulent website, supplying her driver’s licence and passport details, and was given a “bank account”, which appeared to show a balance of $500,000 had been deposited.
However, when Sonia tried to withdraw the money, a notification popped up asking for a transfer code.
Sonia was told she needed to pay around $8000, and then another $20,500, in order to get the code.
Sonia said she paid the first two amounts, but then baulked when another $12,000 was demanded.
An online search by Sonia revealed that the website was using the logo from a legitimate US bank called Trust Bank.
Sonia called the Trust Bank, where a manager confirmed Trust Universal Bank did not exist.
“That’s when I realised I had been scammed,” Sonia said.
“It was like being hit with a baseball bat and having everything ripped out.”
Sonia said her bank initially refused to reimburse her for any of her losses.
But, after she lodged a dispute with the Australian Financial Complaints Authority, ANZ refunded $5000 of the roughly $8500 she paid in “customs” duty at the beginning of the scam.
9news.com.au has reached out to O’Louglin’s Australian representative, who said the actor’s agent and lawyer in the US were aware of the matter.
O’Loughlin’s US agent is yet to respond.
Sonia said she had since connected with other victims on Facebook who had also been duped into thinking they were speaking with the real O’Loughlin.
“I know some of his fans have lost up to $350,000 due to these scams running online,” she said.
Sonia said she hoped O’Loughlin would consider releasing a statement warning his fans about the scammers.
Calls for banks to do more
Last year, Australians reported $40.7 million in romance scam losses to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s Scamwatch.
It’s a small fraction of the $570 million in total losses reported to Scamwatch during the same period.
While enormous, the true figure is likely to be far greater again, with only a small percentage of scam victims coming forward.
The ACCC has long been campaigning for banks to adopt technology already used in some parts of Europe which helps customers check the name of the account they are transferring money to in order to reduce the volume of bank transfer scams.
While online banking transactions require customers to enter a recipient’s name, BSB and account number, most banks check only the BSB and account number.
Last week, the Commonwealth Bank announced it would follow the Netherlands’ lead and begin using a technology called NameCheck.
CBA’s retail banking group executive, Angus Sullivan, said the technology indicates whether account details entered by customers to make a first-time payment match those in the bank’s database.
“When they transfer money online, many people assume the intended recipient’s account name is checked as well as the BSB and account number, but in most cases this is not possible,” he said. “We now have the data and technology to improve this.”
A spokesperson for ANZ declined to answer questions asked by 9news.com.au about whether it also planned to introduce the same technology.
“Our teams and systems monitor suspicious activity 24/7, analysing thousands of data points and trends every day,” an ANZ spokesperson said in a statement.
“As sophisticated scammers change the way they target their victims, we too change how we work to protect our customers, with new systems and technologies deployed to identify and disrupt these activities.”
*Name has been changed for privacy reasons.