New warnings about romance scams have been issued after victims were conned out of more money than ever to online dating fraud, collectively losing more than £50,760,000.
In 2018, Action Fraud received 4,555 reports of romance fraud, each of the victims losing an average of £11,145.
Women, who represent 63% of victims, lost twice as much as men on average.
The amount of money lost to dating scammers last year represents an increase of 27% on 2017.
And it’s not just the financial loss that takes its toll: 42% of victims said the experience had a significant impact on their health or wellbeing.
But Action Fraud says the numbers don’t even accurately represent the true scale of the problem, as many victims are too embarrassed to report their experiences.
Read more: How to report a romance scam.
What is a romance scam?
A romance scam is when someone grows to love and trust someone they’ve met through an online dating site, social media or a dating app.
But the profile is fake and the dating scammer uses the person’s trust by playing on their emotions.
They then get the victim to send money or hand over enough personal information to steal their identity.
How dating and romance scams work
- The new love of your life has supermodel good looks in the pictures they send you.
- They express strong emotions for you in a very short space of time.
- They ask you lots of questions about yourself but don’t tell you much about themselves.
- They’ll pretend they need money from you for some sort of personal emergency or insist they need the money to travel to visit you.
How to spot and avoid romance scams
Action Fraud has put together an acronym to help you stay safe when dating online and avoid romance scams.
Don’t rush into an online relationship: Get to know the person, not the profile, and make sure you ask plenty of questions.
Analyse their profile: Check their photos and details. Put these into a search engine with the phrase ‘dating scam’ and see if there are any reports about them.
Talk to your friends and family: Let them know what you’re doing and they can help you tell if there’s anything dodgy or suspicious about the profile.
Evade scammers: Don’t ever send money or share your bank details with someone you’ve met online. Ever.
Stay on the dating site messenger service: If you go off the platform, you’re more vulnerable. And if you decide to meet them in person, do so in a public place.
How to report an online dating scammer
If you’ve been scammed for money from someone you met online, inform the dating site or app immediately.
You should also report it to Action Fraud and consider contacting the police to report it too.
If you’ve sent the romance scammer money, you should contact your bank immediately so you can try to get your money back.
Read more: how to report a scam.
Romance scammer story: victim loses £10,000 to ‘military man’
Elspet is 67 years old, retired and she lives alone near Newcastle. She met Brian on a dating website that she joined in February 2016 to try to find happiness.
Action Fraud has shared her story as a warning to others.
Strong emotions in a short space of time
Brian was in the military. He was serving in Syria but promised Elspet that one day they would get married, buy a house and start their lives together.
Even though he was fighting so far away, he somehow managed to send her a rose and box of chocolates as tokens of his love.
She was retired and lived alone but having Brian to talk to helped. She grew to trust him.
Financial help needed
After talking for some time, he asked Elspet to help him get a box of personal belongings into the UK.
Brian said he knew a diplomat who would be coming who could bring the box with him, but he needed Elspet to pay for the man’s flights to Germany and the courier fees.
Elspet took out a loan and sent Brian £2,000 to a German bank account. But Brian said that wasn’t enough; he needed more to cover the diplomat’s fares from Germany.
Elspet took money out of a private pension. She ended up sending about £10,000 before telling Brian she couldn’t send any more.
A request for more money
Brian, looking for sympathy, said the diplomat had been shot. He needed more money.
But Elspet started to get suspicious and started asking questions Brian couldn’t answer.
Checking with officials
She phoned the Foreign Office to try to get more information, and it had to tell Elspet that she’d been scammed.
The scam nearly ruined her and, in that same year, she was diagnosed with a brain tumor.
After losing so much money, Elspet was forced to turn to food banks to survive. She even contemplated suicide until a police officer helped her to rebuild her confidence.
But Elspet is determined not to let the fraudsters win and, after a successful operation on her tumor, is on the road to recovery physically and emotionally.
Romance scam warnings
Head of the City of London Police’s Economic Crime Department, commander Karen Baxter, said: ‘As cases of romance fraud increase each year, so too does the cost to victims, both emotionally and financially.
‘The emotional damage of falling victim to romance fraud can often be far more difficult to come to terms with.
‘Heartless fraudsters are cruelly targeting vulnerable victims and exploiting those looking for love online.’
CEO of the Online Dating Association, George Kidd, said: ‘Dating services are part of our social fabric, accounting for about a third of all new relationships.
‘They are enjoyed by millions and we want everyone to have a great and safe experience.
‘We ask users to stay alert online just as they would in any other walk of life: use the in-built messaging services and be wary of people who want to get you away from this.
‘Be wary of those who shower you with loving messages instantly, but may not want to meet. And, no one you meet online should ever ask you for money.’