Internet dating and finding love through social networking sites is booming — but this popular and modern method of finding a partner is being exploited by criminals looking to con people out of their money.
For victims of romance fraud, the cost is emotional as well as financial as they feel devastated at the shattering of an illusion after forming a bond with someone they thought had genuine feelings for them.
Det Ch Insp Andrew Fyfe, head of crime at the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau, said: ‘Over the last few years, the online dating industry has become less of a taboo subject.
‘Before, people would not admit they had met someone online. But now people have busier lives, it has become the norm. People who are taken in by romance fraud are usually the most vulnerable and badly affected victims of fraud. Many of these people are lonely and desperate for romance and companionship, only to find themselves completely fleeced.
‘Not only can they have lost thousands of pounds, they are totally devastated by the complete breakdown of trust.
‘Some of them are strung along and wooed for a year or more by someone who is effectively grooming them.
‘Sometimes, these people feel like they are in love and it can get very personal.
‘They are building up this expectation of meeting this person of their dreams.
‘Dating fraud is about pulling on the emotional heartstrings. It does not matter what profession you are in or what stage of life you are at, you can become a victim of dating fraud.
‘We see people from all walks of life. We recently saw a female solicitor who was scammed through dating fraud, but we have also seen people who are unemployed.
‘The one thing they all have in common is that they are looking for love or companionship. The victims can be at a vulnerable stage of their life and may have recently been through a divorce or been widowed or just not had a serious relationship before.
Det Ch Insp Fyfe said that while fraudsters would often meet their targets on an online dating forum, they would soon take communications to a more private forum.
He explained: ‘They move away from the dating website quite quickly as they want to start communicating in a more personal way such as text messages, WhatsApp, Facebook and e-mails.
‘That’s when the fraudster really starts and it opens up different layers of the fraud.’
Det Ch Insp Fyfe said the offender communicated with their victim on a daily basis and waited until they developed strong feelings for them before asking for money.
He said: ‘It starts with a small amount of money to begin with but then it builds up to thousands.’
Men and women are just as likely to become victims of romance fraud, but Action Fraud receives more reports from women and Det Ch Insp Fyfe believes ‘men are more reluctant to report it because of a pride thing.’
With female victims, they are usually contacted by a man who said he is divorced or widowed and he is working abroad. Some say they are in the US army working abroad while others say they are on the oil rigs.
Det Ch Insp Fyfe said: ‘They deliberately say they are not in this country as that avoids questions about meeting up.
‘When they get to the stage of asking for money, it is usually for something like being stopped at customs for fees after buying gifts or having gold with them.
‘They can come across as genuine by e-mailing documents that look as if they are from customs.
‘With male victims, it is slightly different. The female suspects usually say they are younger and are abroad on business.
‘They then say they have an issue with customs or have an accident or have a sick child who they have to pay medical fees for.
‘I think sometimes people’s judgement is clouded by the thought of the relationship they think they have.
‘The suspect makes themselves out to be the perfect man or woman and tell them everything they want to hear.
‘We often find organised crime groups are organising this type of fraud and that’s how they can manage this level of communication.’
Det Ch Insp Fyfe said the amount victims lost depended on how long the fraud carried on for.
‘Some lose a few hundred pounds while others can lose several hundreds of thousands of pounds.’
How to date online safely:
Avoid posting details such as your full name, date of birth, or your home and work addresses on online profiles.
Criminals can use these types of personal information to steal your identity
Never respond to any requests to send money or have money transferred into your account by someone you don’t know and trust. These types of requests should always raise a red flag
Never reveal any of your financial details.
If a user asks you for them, stop communicating with them immediately and report it to the dating site.
Behaviours that put you most at risk online:
n Revealing too much personal information such as your home address or your full date of birth
n Revealing any financial details or responding to requests to send money
n Clicking on links or opening attachments in e-mails from someone you’ve just met on a dating site
Between April 2016 and April 2017,
Action Fraud received 3,127 reports of dating fraud
The total loss for dating fraud for this period was £34,403,350.03
The average loss was £11,002.03
The previous year, between April 2015 and March 2016, Action Fraud received 2,561 reports of dating fraud
The total loss for this timeframe was £25,849,224.11
The average loss was £10,483.88