Australia, Malaysia, Singapore on love scam alert

Sydney - Love may be in the air on Saint Valentine's Day but authorities in Australia, Malaysia and Singapore warned on Monday of a growth in online scams cheating lonely people out of their savings.

Romance scams cost Australians more money than any other form of cheating, with those aged over 45 more likely to be stung, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) said.

Victims are lured with promises of love and companionship into giving strangers money.

"Romance scammers are getting increasingly manipulative so if you are going online this Valentine's Day to look for love, it's absolutely vital that you're able to recognise the warning signs," ACCC deputy chair Delia Rickard said in a statement.

"Scammers create very believable profiles, including stealing the identities of real, trusted people.

"If you meet someone who seems too good to be true, do some research to see if they're the real deal," Rickard said.

In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysian and Singapore police said 27 suspects - including 11 Nigerians, whose country is notorious for offshore financial swindles - were arrested in a joint operation against a syndicate preying on people seeking partners.

- Some were also arrested in South Africa. Read more here.

They cheated 108 people in the neighbouring countries out of about $4.9 million in 2016, authorities said in the Malaysian capital.

Evidence seized in the operation - including computers, mobile phones and automatic teller cards - was presented at a press conference in Kuala Lumpur.

Acryl Sani, director of Malaysia's Commercial Crime Investigation Department, said the victims were from both sexes, with 43 from Singapore and 65 from Malaysia, and included elderly people.

"We believe there are more such syndicates operating in Malaysia. The police will hunt them and nab the culprits," he told AFP.

Acryl said suspects found guilty of cheating could be jailed for up to 20 years.

"The syndicate members involved in the romance scam use powerful words and emotions to prey on the lonely victims by using text messages only, and never face-to-face or phone communications," he said.

David Chew, director of Singapore's Commercial Affairs Department, said online scams are increasingly complex and transnational in nature.

"To the criminals who think that they could hide behind the cloak of anonymity provided by the internet to perpetrate fraud, we want to send a deterrent message that crime does not pay," he said.

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