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, says: “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 says while fraudsters will often meet their targets on an online dating forum, they will soon take communications to a more private forum.
He explains: “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 says the offender communicates with their victim on a daily basis and waits until they develop strong feelings for them before asking for money.
He says: “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 says 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 says: “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 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 says the amount victims lose depends on how long the fraud carries on for.
“Some lose a few hundred pounds while others can lose several hundreds of thousands of pounds.”
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.
VULTURES OR FISHERMEN
The perpetrators of romance fraud are either like vultures or fishermen says Det Cons Mark Aldridge, fraud and liaison officer who works in the economic crime unit at Lancashire Police,
He says: “Fraudsters work like vultures or fishermen.
“They either sit up there and look around like vultures and wait until they see a victim.
“Or they lob something out there like bait and wait and see who bites like fishermen do.
“With romance fraud, people are advertising their vulnerability by the fact they are looking for love or to form a relationship.
“Just by registering on dating websites and putting your profile out there, you are declaring your vulnerabilities.
“Unfortunately, there are people out there who don’t use these sites to form relationships but as sources of information to find victims.
“It is surprising how intense some of these relationships become for the victims even though they have never met the person.
“If you are unhappy or your life is not great and someone is offering you an escape from loneliness, it is something people will engage in.
“Investing emotions and feelings is more powerful than investing money.
“Once people have invested in a relationship, it becomes a difficult thing to break as no one likes getting their heart or their trust broken.
“For family members, it can be a difficult thing to criticise when someone believes they are in a genuine relationship.
“With romance fraud, there will always be some crisis - whether it is a car crash or the person getting beaten up and having all their credit cards stolen or unexpected taxes.
““It is all about vulnerability and using psychology to get under the skin of a person. It is like a different version of child grooming.
“It is all about taking your money off you and for these fraudsters, it is never a relationship.”
Det Cons Aldridge says romance fraud culprits often feed off what their victims tell them and regurgitate their own tale to them.
He explains: “They feed off what they hear from the victims like leeches and quite often, the offender gives an almost exact reiteration of the victim’s case.
“The psychology of what they are trying to do is show they are kindred spirits and have such a lot in common.
“The offender takes in triggers from their discussion and make notes and research it to make it look like they have the same interests.
“As a result, the victim forms a real bond with this person who they believe is their perfect match.
“These scammers are in it for the long gain and know it is not a quick hit. They know they have to develop the online relationship over a period of time before they hit payday.
“Before they even ask for any money, they have to make sure you are committed enough to pay it.
“These fraudsters wait until they have really reeled their victim in before asking for money.
“There is a common trait with this type of scam - once you have paid out, there will always be a need for more money.
“They will keep taking money off their victims until they either have no money left or have sussed them out.”
While some romance fraud culprits can be from this country, Det Cons Aldridge says many are from abroad. “Often the fraudster is from abroad and it is virtually impossible to track them down.
“They do not care about the psychological damage they cause to their victims - it is all about boosting their own bank account.
“Romance scams are far more personal than other kinds of fraud. The victims have invested far more of themselves into it.
“When they realise they have been duped, their embarrassment is so much higher.
“Many tend not to report it as they don’t want people to know.
“All fraud is based on vulnerability.”
LIKE DOMESTIC VIOLENCE
Like domestic violence, romance fraud is a much bigger problem than people realise, but it goes under the radar because people are reluctant to talk about it says Dr Tim Owen, director of the University of Central Lancashire’s Cybercrime Research Unit.
He says: “Romance fraud is far bigger than people think - but like domestic violence, we only ever see the tip of the iceberg because of the social embarrassment factor.
“The taboo of online relationships has gone, but there are not many people who are willing to confess to being duped in such a way.
“They thought they were in a meaningful relationship and when they discover it was all hollow, they feel foolish and don’t want to tell anyone.
“There are an increasing number of singletons out there and they are unwittingly admitting their vulnerabilities on these dating sites.
“There are predators targeting people on dating websites and looking for the lonely.
“With people having a far more home based lifestyle, it is easier for victims to go under the radar and people can even disappear as the likes of serial killers can operate more effectively.”
NOTHING TO DO WITH EDUCATION OR PROFESSION
People wrongly assume that professional and well educated people won’t fall victim to romance scams.
However, Prof Awais Rashid, Lancaster University’s top academic on cyber security and co-director of the Security Lancaster Institute, says that in many cases, these are exactly the kind of people the people carrying out these scams want to target.
He explains: “People sometimes think it is not the professional and highly educated people who fall for these scams.
“But in a large number of cases, that is exactly the people who are targeted.
“Ultimately, the goal is to extract money out of people and successful and professional people are more likely to have money.
“These people are also more likely to have busy lives so don’t have time to go out and date.
“There is no evidence that socio economic background plays a part in someone being a victim of romance fraud.
“Research has shown it is more their romantic ideology that makes people susceptible. Many people have an idealised idea of romance and think there is only one person out there for them.
“In some cases, the victims become so attached to their scammers, that despite being shown all the evidence, they refuse to believe they are being exploited for financial gain.”