I put a spell on you“I put a spell on you…” so the song goes. One of the most insidious and rapidly growing scams is romance fraud. It’s where people get conned into thinking they’ve found their perfect match, they’re overwhelmed by feelings of love and will do anything for their new found beau. But often they’ve never even met face to face with the person. And their new love just needs a little money…
7 min read
You may not think of yourself as vulnerable, but it’s surprising how many people get caught up in romance scams.
Dating or romance fraud is when you think you’ve met your perfect partner online, but they aren’t who they say they are. Often, the way the scammers work is to create false profiles, using stolen pictures and identities on dating apps or websites. They reach out to innocent people looking for a relationship. Both men and women are targeted, but it’s often single women in their 50s and 60s, especially professional women who the fraudsters think may have money they can go after.
It’s simply a confidence-trick, and involves a thief pretending to be loving and affectionate to gain the confidence of the victim.
Romance scams have grown enormously since we wrote about them a year ago. Banks say scammers operating in these confidence tricks jumped 73 per cent in just a year. Action Fraud believes that the figure for losses to romance scams could be over £95 million a year.
In America, the Federal Trade Commission says that romance scams cost more money than any other type of consumer fraud.
In the UK, some of the banks have set up special teams to try and protect their customers from being conned. They are often on the receiving end of abuse from customers who wholeheartedly believe they’re in love, but the bank team has stepped in to prevent a payment.
Of course the bank teams have to be pretty sure. In one example reported on msn, 64 year old Paul, not his real name, spent hours on the phone with a team at Santander, trying to convince them that his new Brazilian girlfriend was genuine. The team had stepped in, having seen some unusual activity on Paul’s account. The ‘relationship’ had been going on for three years at this point. It started on WhatsApp but even after all this time Paul had never met the girl. He had a picture though, and had been sending regular small amounts of money that had come to over £10,000.
But now the ‘girlfriend’ says she has inherited 16 gold bars from her mother but can’t get them unless she pays £3,000 in fees to a vault in Ghana. Paul wants to help and send the money, the bank says “we think this is a scam”. After hours on the phone with Paul, the bank team runs a picture search on the image he has of his ‘girlfriend’ holding a certificate for the gold bars. They find it’s a picture that’s been lifted from a porn site that’s been flagged in several scams. Eventually, after many hours on the phone with the bank’s team, Paul accepts he’s been conned and the 64 year old won’t be setting up a new family with his 20-something Brazilian glamour model after all.
Globally, millions of people turn to online dating apps or social media to meet someone. In doing so, users share a wide variety of personal information, some even including facial recognition data.
In January this year, Match Group, the parent company that owns dating apps Tinder, Hinge, Match, Plenty of Fish, Meetic and OurTime, announced a new campaign introducing in-app messages and email notifications to give users tips on how to prevent being scammed online. The idea is to prompt users with messages about common scamming behaviours to look out for.
Although romance scams often begin on dating apps, the scammer will try to get you away from the app as quickly as possible and onto a messaging service such as WhatsApp.
It’s always worth checking that potential matches’ pictures are real, and video chatting with them before meeting in person is the best way to go. Scammers will usually avoid video interaction, making one excuse or another why they can’t do that.
Love takes time
Scammers in romance cons often spend many months and even years working their target. Men and women are both targeted and statistics suggest that the over fifties are most vulnerable.
The scammer starts slowly, building trust, making up their story but at some point, they make their move and ask for money. They might claim to be abroad, or working on an oil rig - reasons you may not be able to meet in person. But in fact they’re sitting in a cubicle in a ‘scam factory’ alongside teams of other thieves. The scammer will go to great lengths to gain trust and have been known to work at a scam for months, even years. They are masterful at using language to persuade and manipulate victims to exploit them. There is evidence that scammers can be working 40 or 50 ‘romances’ at a time.
But if you love me…
Once established, the criminals gently execute their sting. They ask for money to be sent: it may be so they can come and visit, or for a medical bill for a fictional sick relative, or to pay off a debt. Sometimes it’s a suggestion to make an investment in for example a foreign property, or perhaps crypto-currency. Or gold bars as we saw above.
Scammers, having worked the scam for a long time, introduce a problem and it will be for something time-critical, like a medical emergency, a health problem for a parent or a child. It will be something that pulls the heartstrings and that if you really loved someone you would want to help with.
Sometimes, when one victim expresses their reluctance to part with more money having already sent thousands, suddenly the ‘lover’ turns nasty and threatening. Once the thieves have got all they can, of course then they just disappear.
Out of love and out of pocket
Sometimes the apparent new love has a ‘great investment plan’ for the victim’s benefit. About 70% of victims of this kind of scam are women. But men are trapped by romance scams too. According to a recent story on the BBC, an anonymous British man, struggling with a break-up in 2020, joined a dating app. Soon, a woman who introduced herself as Jia from Hong Kong approached him, and they started messaging and it developed into discussing a future together. Jia presented herself as a successful cryptocurrency investor with “inside knowledge” and lured the man into dreaming of building a wealthy lifestyle with her. Over several months the man ‘invested’ £200,000. One day, finding his balance had been ‘cleared’, he found the mysterious Jia had disappeared along with all his money.
Other men are blackmailed - the criminal sends a video involving sex, the victim sends something similar back and then the criminals use it to blackmail the man into parting with a lot of cash.
How to spot the signs
There are some warning signs to help spot when something is not what it seems. For somebody caught up in a romance scam, by its very nature, it can be hard to see what’s going on. So apply these tips to your close friends and family in case you can spot that something untoward is going on. Some signs may include:
- You’ve struck up a relationship with someone online and they declare their love for you surprisingly quickly, given you haven't actually met
- Many fraudsters claim to be overseas because they work in the military or medical profession
- They make up excuses as to why they can’t video chat or meet in person and will try to move your conversations off the platform you met on
- Their pictures are too perfect – they may have been stolen from an actor or model
- They tell you to keep your relationship private and not to discuss anything with your friends and family
- They start to make requests for financial help, especially if it seems like they are rushing you
How to protect yourself
There some things you can do to check what’s going on:
- Firstly, stop and take a moment to think before parting with your money or personal information
- Really ask yourself, is this person really who they say they are? Could they be fake?
- Use Google picture search on any picture they send you. If it turns up somewhere odd, that may be a big clue that they have stolen at least an image from somewhere as part of a fake profile.
UK Finance’s Take Five to Stop Fraud campaign urges potential victims to think twice before parting with their money. They suggest people should:
- Stop and think before sharing money or banking information
- Challenge anyone who asks for money online
- Protect themselves by notifying their bank and reporting the incident to Action Fraud if they think they have fallen for a scam
If a family member starts behaving oddly or appears to be secretive about a relationship, it could be that they are falling under the spell of a scammer. An intervention may be needed if they:
- Are secretive about their relationship and provide excuses for why they have not seen their online partner
- Express strong emotions and commitment to someone they have only just met
- Begin sending money to someone they have not met face-to-face
What if I think I’ve been scammed?
Here’s what you should do:
- Note all the details of the scam
- Report the scam to the police (if it has taken place in the past 24 hours)
- Protect yourself from further risks and check if you can get your money back, by for example contacting your bank and making them aware that you have been scammed
- Report the scam to Citizens’ Advice – it can pass the information on to Trading standards for it to investigate and potentially take legal action against the fraudsters
- Report the scam to other organisations such as Action Fraud – this increases the chance of catching the scammers
How to report it
If you think you have been a victim of a romance scam, don’t feel ashamed or embarrassed - you’re not alone. Contact your bank right away and report it to Action Fraud on 0300 123 2040 or via actionfraud.police.uk.
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