“I said ‘that’s my story’, it just blew me away,” she said.
The elaborate scam involved fake news videos, a fake bank site and 10 months of emails and phone calls.
To Donna, who lives in Christchurch, the names might have been different, but everything else was the same.
It was May 2018, and she had decided to use Tinder for the first time. As she scrolled through the potential matches she came across a Rodney Mullen based in Auckland.
“There was a nice photo of him and a couple of wee kids and I thought ‘oh yeah, he’s a nice guy’, so I swiped right,” Donna said.
Mullen had already swiped right and the pair matched. As with Joanne, it did not take long until Mullen took the chat off Tinder.
The two spoke daily on the phone and regularly emailed. Many of Mullen’s emails were identical to those Joanne would later receive.
Like Plumides, “Mullen” was working on an overhead bridge in Dubai that was nearing completion; had a son named Nathan, and would be “hanging my hat” by the end of the year.
And like Plumides, Mullen called himself her “prince charming”. Mullen even had the same pick-up line:
“I don’t need a supermodel, I rather need a very good friend who knows when I am tensed just by looking into my eyes lol a super woman. The whole world may be mad at me, but if she is smiling at me, I would care less,” Mullen said.
Donna – “a simple girl at heart… searching for my ultimate love” – was soon infatuated.
“He was just so lovely,” she said.
Mullen emailed Donna a copy of a US passport under his name. He sent her a certificate saying he had qualified as a Certified Anti-Money Laundering Specialist. Mullen is not listed as a graduate on the certifying company’s website.
Like Joanne, Donna was informed of the $9 million coming from the bridge project. He also sent a fake news video with a presenter discussing the project. The presenter was not the same one Joanne saw, but read the same script.
Donna told Mullen she was fine financially and was not interested in his money.
However, there was an issue. There was a hold-up with the asphalt for the bridge and contractors were unhappy and wanted to be paid.
Mullen said it was Ramadan and no-one was working (he told Joanne four people were off work). He asked her to help out and transfer him $50,000 through TransferWise.
Donna, who had money from an investment of her own, agreed to send the money.
Then came requests for more. After Ramadan the contractors were unhappy and were going to sue Mullen. He told Donna he was stuck where he was, was scared and could not leave.
“I said ‘I’ll fly over, and we will sort this together’. He said ‘no babe, you don’t need to come here, it’s very dangerous’,” Donna said.
After the court case was settled he said he was unable to access his American bank account as it was frozen with unpaid taxes. She paid money to settle the taxes as well as help he and two of his colleagues leave the country.
“It just went on and on and on … it was just one thing after another,” Donna said.
“I would say to him, Rodney, I need this money, it’s not my money, this is my kids’ money, this is my granddaughter’s money. Please, please, please don’t let me down.
“He said, ‘oh babe, I will never let you down’.”
Despite his protestations, she said she knew “in my heart of hearts” it was likely a scam.
“But you get to a point where you just think holy f—ing god, please let this be real because I’m going to get some money back, and then you just get yourself deeper and deeper into it until the day you realise ‘whoops, I might’ve actually f—ed up here’,” Donna said.
For Donna her moment came $517,000 later. She was on the phone with Mullen one night when her daughter overheard them arguing about money. Mullen wanted more, but Donna said she could not give him any more.
“I’d emptied out my bank account, I had nothing else.”
When she left her room her daughter confronted her and asked if she had been giving money to Mullen. She then asked if she was sure he was real.
“I knew he wasn’t… I said ‘yeah, I know love, I know you’re right’,” Donna said.
Donna later emailed Mullen to tell him she could not give him more money.
“Things have now changed for me… I can only hope you are sincere and can understand this,” she wrote.
She told Mullen her daughter had “put two and two together”, and told her she had been scammed. She would not send him another cent.
“If you pay back the money, and we end up together she will love you for who you are to me… it’s that simple… no grudges… this is now up to you,” she wrote.
Donna’s daughter also called him, berating him for what had happened. From then his numbers were blocked, and he never responded to her email.
Donna went to police and her bank about what happened, but nothing eventuated.
“It was horrendous,” she recalled.
“But I am proud of myself that I talked to people about it, because if you don’t, imagine how that’s going to eat away at you.”
She said she realised early on there was “no way in a million years” she would get her money back, or that Mullen would be caught.
“I said you have to be f—-ing kidding me… I said that’s my story, it just blew me away.”
Donna was “devastated” for Joanne and wanted others to know the impact of such a scam.
“It’s a really hard story to share, but it’s one that needs to be shared because there’s other people that are being impacted by this, and it needs to stop.”
New Zealand cyber-security agency Computer Emergency Response Team’s (CERT) senior threat analyst, Sam Leggett, earlier said romance scams were commonplace on many social media or dating apps and websites.
“We want to be clear that no-one should ever be embarrassed about being taken in. The scammers are very sophisticated, and their techniques closely mirror legitimate connections,” Mr Leggett said.
Banking Ombudsman Nicola Sladden said she was seeing a “concerning rise” in fraud and scam complaints, year on year.
There were a few scam types where customers were tricked into sending their own money to a scammer – such as online purchase scams, investment scams and romance scams.
The sending bank was unlikely to be liable where a person instructs it to send money to someone, and they later find out that the individual was a scammer.
The ombudsman expected banks to take “reasonable steps” to identify and act on red flags such as a customer being evasive or unwilling to provide information about the purpose of a transaction, or where their description of the purpose had a “hallmark” of a scam.