From red roses to red flags – BNZ warns of increase in relationship scams ahead of Valentine’s Day

On Valentine’s Day eve, BNZ is warning Kiwis to be wary of scammers with its customers reporting a 43% increase in relationship and romance scams over the past year.

“There were 167 reported cases in 2023 – and they’re only the ones that we know about as many of these sorts of scams go unreported,” says BNZ’s Head of Financial Crime Ashley Kai Fong.

This is up from 117 reported cases in 2022.

“This shows that despite the headline grabbing nature of these types of scams, relationship scams are still very fertile ground criminals are using to exploit vulnerable Kiwis,” says Kai Fong.

Relationship scams are a type of fraud where criminals pretend to be interested in a relationship with another person, sometimes for romance and occasionally simply for companionship, most commonly online, and then victims are conned out of their money or tricked into sharing personal details.

“All scams can be devastating for victims, but relationship scams are particularly heinous given the time criminals invest in building the relationship with their victims. It can be months before the scammer hints or asks directly for money. They steal your heart, then they steal your money,” says Kai Fong.

In a recent romance scam case, Barry (details have been changed) came to a BNZ branch wanting help to make an international payment to Italy. Barry revealed that the funds were going to his girlfriend’s friend for an airline ticket to New Zealand. They had been dating online for almost a year and he recently started sending his “girlfriend” money. The girlfriend had asked for the money to be sent to her “friend’s account” as her friend had the credit card to purchase the airline ticket.

“There is so much social engineering involved in romance scam cases, and victims often don’t believe that they are caught up in a scam. That is what has happened in this case. Barry refused to believe this was a scam and despite being warned of the risks, he sent the money,” says Kai Fong.

In another case, romance scam victim Sally (details have been changed) believed she was sending money to her US Army surgeon boyfriend stationed in Syria. But Sally’s “boyfriend” said he couldn’t access his bank account due to a poor internet connection and needed the money urgently to fly to NZ. This customer had already sent considerable funds to her “boyfriend” from a number of banks, despite being warned of the risks. The funds for the latest transaction were the proceeds of a personal loan from a finance company.

“As in this case, criminals can go to great lengths to provide evidence to support their fake personas,” says Kai Fong.

“They set up bogus social media profiles, and often share doctored documents such as boarding passes or letters from fake employers. While relationship scams primarily involve romantic relationships, criminals can also exploit friendships built up online too.

“So, while we’ve got an eye out for red roses this Valentine’s Day, and I know it’s not very romantic, my plea is that New Zealanders keep an eye out for the red flags of romance scams this year too.”

How to recognise a romance scam: 

  • Strong emotions are expressed within a short timeframe.
  • The scammer gives you excuses as to why they cannot meet in person or video call.
  • They’ve asked you to keep the relationship a secret.
  • You’re asked to provide financial assistance.
  • You’re asked to receive money on their behalf and forward it to them.

Top tips to protect yourself from romance scams: 

  • Never send money or give personal or financial information to someone you have just met or have not met in person.
  • Do not trust someone who claims to be in love with you after a short time without meeting you.
  • Do not trust someone who asks you to communicate only through email, phone, or chat apps and avoids video calls or social media.
  • Do not trust someone who has a lot of excuses for not meeting you in person or who cancels plans at the last minute.
  • The internet is your friend – use reverse image search to check if their photos are stolen from someone else. Search for their name, email, phone number, or other details on the internet and see if they match what they have told you.
  • A great relationship isn’t a secret! Talk to your friends and family about your new relationship. They may be able to spot the signs of a scam that you may have missed.
  • Report any suspicious or fraudulent activity to the online platform where you met the person.  If you’ve sent any funds, contact your bank immediately.