A Queensland woman has lost her life savings in an elaborate online employment scam targeting vulnerable people looking for online work.
When Nikki Skillin, 54, became a full-time career for her husband, who has early onset dementia among other health issues, she needed to transition to work-from-home to maintain a steady income.
Desperate to bring money into the household, she searched online for employment that would meet her needs.
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A prospective employer contacted Skillin via LinkedIn, asking about her skills and saying she would then receive a WhatsApp message if work was available for her.
“I asked who the company was — I thought I did my due diligence by searching the company online, I saw the travel company in the US was legitimate,” Skillin told 7NEWS.com.au.
But while Skillin had searched for, and found, a real business profile for an online travel company called Dune7, the people who had contacted her were not associated with the company at all.
“The logo, the image, everything was the same,“ Skillin said.
The scammers had branded themselves as Dune7, using that company’s online profile, and claimed to be looking for employees to write fake 5-star reviews for travel destinations and experiences.
Employees were given a quota of “journeys” — or reviews to write — and would receive a commission on every review completed.
These included “expedited journeys” — which were more profitable and included a bonus — however employees were expected to pay their own money for the right to access these.
“For each (journey) you receive a commission and an expedited journey was worth more money, so the commission was higher,” Skillin said.
“But you had to make up the difference to start — they told me you can cash out at the end of the journeys plus the money you put in would be given back.”
After paying just $38, Skillin received her first commission of about $200 and said everything seemed fine.
Alvin has entered the chat
Skillin began receiving messages from her new supervisor, Alvin, via WhatsApp and a private messaging system called Telegram.
Alvin, who would also sometimes go by Alvis, would demand screenshots of Skillin’s work to make sure she was completing her journeys correctly and pushed her to complete expedited journeys.
“I was being pressured to get jobs done by my supervisor,” Skillin said.
“Every step of the way he wanted me screenshotting what I was doing so that I wasn’t making any mistakes.”
Around this time Alvin also began making romantic advances towards Skillin, who said she became increasingly uncomfortable during their interactions.
“He started to hit on me, telling me he started having romantic feelings for me,” she said.
“He knew my husband was sick, he was playing on my emotions, asking to meet him at night.
“At this point, I was getting extremely suspicious.”
Alvin told Skillin he had two children and his wife was expecting their third child — and his WhatsApp photo showed a man with two young children, giving her no reason to doubt him.
“I played along with him but didn’t encourage him,” she said.
Alvin then began demanding more money from Skillin, saying she was not meeting her journeys quota.
She said she paid for more expedited journeys but did not receive her expected commissions.
Her breaking point came about two weeks after she had started working for what she believed was Dune7, when she had already sent thousands of dollars but was told she needed to pay $10,000 more for her uncompleted journeys quota.
She also realised she’d been locked out of the cryptocurrency account Alvin had requested she open for her payments.
“I just wanted this nightmare to end,” she said.
“I told Alvin I’m done, I’m finished, I said I couldn’t do any more — but I did.”
Skillin paid the scammers the remainder of her life savings and also took out a bank loan to cover the rest.
Meanwhile, her elderly mother lent her money to pay her rent.
Skillin continued working for the scammers, thinking she needed to earn back the money she had lost.
“I was desperate at this point, I was scared — I wanted the nightmare to be over,” she said.
“All I could think was I had to get to the end, to get my money back and get out.”
Skillin eventually tried directly contacting the company in the US — and realised she had not been working for the people she thought she was.
At the same time, her husband had been admitted to hospital. And, because of his dementia, she was unable to confide in him about what she was going through and the stress and emotional turmoil it was causing her.
Instead, she reached out to her sister.
‘I think I’ve been scammed’
“I rang my sister and asked her to come to my house … (we) went into my bedroom and shut the door,“ Skillin said.
“I said: ‘Something has happened, don’t judge me — I think I’ve been scammed quite badly’.”
After telling her sister of the scam, and showing her the company website, Skillin said even her sister “took a while” to work out it wasn’t legitimate.
All up, Skillin had been falsely employed and manipulated by the scammers for about three weeks and lost $15,473.
“The pressure was intense,” she said.
“Alvin still tries to contact me.”
Skillin lodged a complaint with the federal government’s ScamWatch but was told she is unlikely to get any money back.
Financial Services Minister Stephen Jones says the National Anti-Scams Centre has reported an increase of more than 740 per cent in employment scams in 2023, with losses since January this year reaching $20 million.
“We’ve seen a significant increase in scammers impersonating genuine organisations and recruiters, contacting victims through job offers via WhatsApp or promoting jobs ads on social media platforms, such as Facebook, TikTok and Instagram,” he said.
“They often help victims set up accounts on cryptocurrency platforms and get them to undertake training and tasks, before asking for a financial deposit with the promise of commissions or bonuses.”
Jones said scammers are targeting job-seekers with lucrative offers to complete tasks, tricking unsuspecting victims into handing over their hard-earned money.
7NEWS contacted the real Dune7 which said it had been “made aware of the scam” and “referred it to the relevant federal authorities”.
“This scammer is using our brand illegally and is in no way associated with our company Dune7, which is a marketing agency in the United States,” the company said.
“In light of the ongoing investigations it would be inappropriate to comment further at this time.”
Skillin warned other people who may be desperate for online work to be more aware of potential scams.
“I felt embarrassed, stupid, terrified for what I’d done — I’m in a situation where I am in charge of everything now and I put us in a vulnerable financial situation, I still feel extremely fragile,” Skillin said.
Family members have started a GoFundMe to help her pay off her loan.
“I pretend everything is OK when I speak with people, it’s exhausting,” Skillin said.
“If I could help stop somebody else from falling victim to a scam like this — that’s all I want.”
The Australian government advises people should contact their bank immediately if they think they have been scammed, and report it via the National Anti-Scam Centre.
National Debt Helpline: 1800 007 007 or access live chat via the website: ndh.org.au
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