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Banker’s scam sense saves “heartbroken” customer $2 million

12:00pm March 20 2024

Westpac personal banker Marlena Karbowski sensed something was not quite right when a customer came into her Liverpool branch with a request to cancel her house insurance. 

Karbowski took care to look deeper into the matter, listen to the customer’s explanation, and act when she confirmed that a scam was afoot, helping prevent the loss of around $2 million to a criminal in Turkey. 

“If someone is cancelling house insurance, it’s often because they're selling the property or moving somewhere else, so we ask the extra question: why are you selling the property?” Karbowski says. 

The customer initially said she needed the proceeds from the sale to help her son. But Karbowski had read the ACCC’s Little Black Book of Scams, essential reading for all branch staff, and was extra-vigilant for any red flags.

“I wanted to get a bit more information. How had her son contacted her? Did he call, or send a message? If it's a message that could be a scam. So we started to talk and after maybe 45 minutes of conversation she told me that the money was actually for a guy she met online who was in prison in Turkey.” 

That was the cue for Karbowski to start digging. She called the Turkish embassy to ask if it was plausible that someone in Turkey would ask for such a large sum. Not surprisingly, the embassy agreed it was probably a scam. 

“I asked her to send me photos of the guy and I put them into a Google reverse image search. There were so many different pictures of this guy, one was of a model somewhere in America, so then we knew it was a scam.”

Fortunately, settlement of the property was a week away so the customer still had time to cancel the transaction. Karbowski then walked with her to Liverpool Police Station to report the crime. 

“She was heartbroken, but at least she saved her house.” 

Westpac personal banking specialist Marlena Karbowski. (Supplied)

Romance scams have been around since before the internet but have become much more prevalent in the age of social media and online dating. Romance scam cases in the first two months of 2024 were up 6 per cent on the same period a year earlier, according to Westpac data, with gross losses up 20 per cent. 

Perpetrators often target the most vulnerable sections of society, including the Indigenous community, people living with disability, and the older generations. 

“Romance scammers are usually very patient and are happy to play the long game before asking for money,” says Ben Young, Westpac’s Head of Fraud. “By then the victim is totally smitten, so spotting the scam gets even harder. Many of these scammers do this as a full-time job and have many victims on the go at once, so they’ve got no problem messaging back and forth every single day for months on end.”

For more information on how to spot a romance scam, check out Ben’s Scam Spot video. Visit the Westpac website for information on the latest scams and how to avoid them. 

James Thornhill was appointed as editor of Westpac Wire in May 2022. Prior to joining the bank, he was a business and financial journalist with more than two decades of experience with international newswires. Most recently, he was a resources correspondent for Bloomberg, covering the mining and energy sectors, and previously reported on a broad range of topics from economics and politics to currency and bond markets. Originally from the UK, he’s had stints working in London, New York and Singapore, but is now happily settled in Sydney.

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