Romance fraud has boomed during the UK's lockdowns, with reports to Action Fraud up 40% in the year to April 2021.
Dating online without meeting in person has become the new normal throughout the coronavirus pandemic. But losses to romance fraud reached £73.9m during this period, with Action Fraud receiving 7,754 reports.
The true figure is likely to be much higher, as many victims of romance fraud are too embarrassed or upset to tell the authorities.
The internet has given many of us a lifeline during a difficult time, but fraudsters have been quick to take advantage. Fake profiles on dating sites and social media platforms are so prevalent that TV producers have commissioned a new UK spin-off of the popular US reality show 'Catfish', and a second season of BBC One series 'For Love or Money'.
Here, victims of romance fraud tell us about their experiences in their own words, and we speak to a forensic linguist to lift the lid on the tactics used by these masters of manipulation.
Catfishing - creating a fake profile to attract someone online - is not a crime, although many think it should be.
However, if the catfish goes on to request money, it is an offence. Fraud is a conduct offence rather than a results offence, so a victim needn't send money to the fraudster for the offence to be complete - it's complete as soon as the fraudster asks for money under false pretences. This is fraud by false representation under the Fraud Act 2006, and should be reported to Action Fraud or Police Scotland.
Action Fraud defines romance or dating fraud as where 'the intended victim is befriended on the internet and eventually convinced to assist their new love financially by sending them money, for a variety of emotive reasons'.
Dating sites and social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram are the preferred hunting ground for romance fraudsters. We've also heard from victims who told us they were targeted via LinkedIn (which has a dating app called InLove) and on the 'Words with Friends' game app.
A common tactic is to pretend to have a job that requires long periods of travel, for example a nurse working overseas, someone in the armed forces, or an offshore oil-rig worker.
After months of grooming, they ask for help. UK Finance cites a few examples - an issue with a visa, health problems or flight tickets - and says that victims are typically convinced to make multiple payments to the criminal, as indicated by an average of around five payments per case.
One romance fraud victim told us she was emotionally groomed for many months after meeting a man on Facebook who claimed to work abroad as an engineer:
'We started chatting and he told me he was left heartbroken by his ex-wife. He wanted to start a life with me, and sent me pictures of two minors he claimed were his kids. He said he had a one-year contract in Malaysia as a petrol engineer. After chatting with me for a couple of weeks, out of the blue he told me one of his machines broke and he needs it to finish his work.
'I realised he wanted money without him explicitly asking for it. When he realised that I would never offer to send money, he told me: u201cYou have never bothered to offer to help meu201d. I told him there is no way I can help financially but I could support him morally. This is when he stopped contacting me.'
Fraudsters rarely reveal their true face.
They often steal photos from stock image libraries and online social media profiles. One Which? member told us she had a strange video call with someone she later discovered was using stolen video footage:
'There are a lot of scammers on dating sites. Always a similar story. Either working on oil rigs all over the world or on a peace-keeping mission somewhere, preparing for retirement and wanting to find love. They are very clever, though.'
'I even had a video call with one. It was only a few seconds long and we didn't actually communicate - because it was fuzzy and there was interference - but had I not known better, it would have been easy to think it was genuine because it was actually the person whose pictures I'd seen. How they did it I have no idea, because I discovered those pictures were of a plastic surgeon in the USA. It worries me that some women will fall for it.'
You can either drag the photo or download it to your computer and then upload it. This tracks where else on the internet this photo exists to see if it's a stock image (an existing licensed photo for generic use), or a stolen social media photo.
If there are no results, don't assume this means the photo is legitimate.
Fraudsters are always using new tactics to avoid detection - they might even use images created by an AI machine. For example, websites such as thispersondoesnotexist.com feature disturbingly realistic headshots of humans that don't actually exist.
Victims of dating fraud often blame themselves. But Dr Elisabeth Carter, forensic linguist and senior lecturer in criminology at the University of Roehampton, explains that victims are not to blame, as this is a psychological crime as well as a financial one.
Romance fraudsters are patient - they might groom victims for months before they attempt to steal their money, having built a relationship and established trust. Unlike with most frauds, the victim might initially feel like they're in control and in a position of relative power, as romance fraudsters will typically pitch themselves as vulnerable or in need of help.
'Fraudsters use language to manipulate their victims over a long period of time,' says Dr Carter. 'They are subtly and slowly groomed.'
They will typically suggest switching to email or personal messaging sites such as WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger early on - going from a more regulated environment (dating sites have moderators) to a space alongside friends and family.
'Psychologically the fraudster has moved from being a stranger to someone more familiar,' explains Dr Carter. 'This also gives them access 24 hours a day. They can message the victim night and day. Being sleep deprived means you can't think straight, and this obviously affects decision making.'
Isolation of the victim is another strategy, although this can be incremental, making it hard for family and friends to spot. Fraudsters might convince them it's disloyal to seek support or advice from loved ones, as one victim described to us:
'He was very good at being someone else, and he played the part right to the end. Everyone warned me but I just blocked them out, thinking: 'They don't know him'. I was sure that he was genuine, but I learned the hard way and got scammed out of a lot of money.'
Alice (not her real name) got in touch with Which? after losing tens of thousands of pounds to a romance fraudster who groomed her over seven months. Most of the money was sent to him via Coinbase, a cryptocurrency exchange platform. Her bank says it will not refund the stolen money because it advised her not to make these payments.
'I feel very vulnerable, embarrassed and stupid. I still cannot believe it happened to me. I met this man via Words with Friends. We started a game and got chatting, then quickly moved over to Google Hangouts to chat properly. He said he was a project manager for an oil and gas company and had won a contract he had been chasing since December 2019 - I supposedly brought him luck. Then an important piece of machinery broke, and work had to stop until it was fixed. He eventually asked for £7,000 to get it fixed.'
'I thought he was a legitimate businessman and things went wrong for him, as they can do. When he got that first lot of money it kept escalating, with money being requested for supplies for him and his workers, more specialist workers hired, lawyer fees etc. The list is endless. I was under a lot of stress with my work and the lockdown. The pressure was unreal, as I really believed he was in trouble and needed my assistance. He started to talk about committing suicide, as he could not cope with losing everything.
'The police took well over a month to get involved after I reported it. I kept in touch with this guy as I thought the police would be able to track him. They passed me from pillar to post. I told them the scammer was still in contact with me but they seemed uninterested. I am just a statistic to them. This will teach me to keep myself to myself now, and I will never trust again.
'The banks don't understand how you can be sucked in, manipulated in such a way. I never thought I could be, either - he always had an answer to any query and a way of making me feel it was all going to be OK. I was so open and vulnerable. It makes me so sad. He has stolen my life from me.'
David (not his real name) was cheated out of nearly £4,000 after meeting someone on Twitter. This catfisher posed as a young woman, but David later discovered he was messaging a man in Nigeria.
'Most of the money I sent was supposed to be to pay for a flight ticket and a visa for her to come to the UK to live, and marry me then settle down as a family. It wasn't until 12 months later that I learnt that she wasn't for real, but turned out to be this awful guy.'
'After I found out the truth, I was heartbroken. My emotions were all over the place, and I found it difficult to accept that I had been taken in. This is such a cruel thing to do to an elderly pensioner who wanted love, but instead got fleeced by this evil, corrupt man who has no shame in what he did to me, and no doubt has done to many others.
'The bulk of the money I sent was via Amazon and Steam gift cards, while £1,000 was sent by bank transfer, which I tried to get back but failed because my bank refused to compensate my loss. I've since found it hard to move on from my experience because I still want to get married and settle down with someone I can love and appreciate. Sadly, I'm not sure or confident now of being able to trust the internet.'
Andrew (not his real name) was exchanging messages with a potential love interest on dating website 'Older Dating Online' in November 2019. After weeks of emails and telephone calls, he made plans to meet her for the first time. As she was supposedly based in Russia, she asked for £650 to get a passport. This was quickly followed by more requests - £3,000 to prove to Russian authorities that she had sufficient cash to visit the UK, and funds to cover medical expenses for her father who had Covid-19.
'I became suspicious and contacted my bank to report the scam, but the money couldn't be recovered. I haven't dated at all since the scam. I am not one who exudes confidence in that area, and with Covid-19 rearing its ugly head, more traditional ways have not been possible.'
'My advice? If they ask for money, do not give it - however much they have manipulated trust prior. Before getting to that stage, they will likely have suggested moving away from the dating site and exchanging email addresses. I guess this is because they can be blocked via the site. If they say this, it is highly likely the money bit will follow. Run a mile.
'I didn't report what happened on the website. At the time, I guessed it was my fault for being taken in, not their fault for being in existence.'
Under this Code, 38% of all losses were returned to romance fraud victims in 2020, up from 6% in the six months before the code was introduced. But getting your money back is a lottery.
Firstly, not all banks and building societies are signed up to this voluntary code (the Co-operative Bank, Monzo, Tesco Bank and Virgin Money are not signatories).
We are urging anyone who has been told they won't be reimbursed to take their complaint to the Financial Ombudsman Service. There's a backlog of fraud cases - we're aware of some victims waiting more than a year for their case to be reviewed - but this process is entirely free, and an investigator will review evidence from both sides before making a decision.
If a fraudster has stolen your money and you live in England, Northern Ireland or Wales, report this to Action Fraud using the , or by calling 0300 123 2040 Monday to Friday 8am - 8pm. If you live in Scotland then you should report fraud to the police by calling 101. You should also tell your bank.
Being a victim of fraud can take a huge toll on your mental health, so make sure you talk to someone to get the support you need. Charity offers a free and confidential helpline available on 0808 168 9111 (lines open 24/7). Mind also has a support line, , available on 0300 123 3393 (lines open 9am - 6pm, Monday - Friday).
You should also report fraudsters to the platform they used to contact you. The fraudster won't know that the report came from you, and this could stop them in their tracks.
If you've already deleted your account, you can still report a fraudster by emailing the customer support team with details of their username or a web link to their profile. If you still have an account, you can report them directly via the app or website:
Facebook told us it has a team of experts solely focused on identifying fake profiles and building tools to counter this kind of activity:
'There's no place for fraudulent activity on our platforms, and we block millions of fake accounts every day through a combination of technology and human review. We have also donated £3m to Citizens Advice to raise awareness of online scams and help victims.'
'It is against our rules to use scam tactics on Twitter to obtain money or private financial information. Where we identify violations of our rules, we take robust enforcement action. We're constantly adapting to bad actors' evolving methods, and we will continue to iterate and improve upon our policies as the industry evolves.'
'We have a dedicated team and sophisticated technology that patrols for spam and fraud, including automated and/or manual reviews of each member profile to block IP addresses from high-alert countries, identify stolen credit card numbers and detect suspicious language in profiles.
'The Match Group brands instruct users never to send money to someone they met on our platforms, and to report any individual who asks that they do. These steps are designed to stop scams in their tracks and help protect the next potential victim.'
OlderDatingOnline.co.uk said that all new members undergo various assessments performed by a third-party fraud and scammer-detection service, before they can successfully register. A moderation team also checks if any photos have been previously used by scammers:
'We collect and rate the key information (username, date of birth, password, email address, gender) along with various hidden information, which includes, but is not limited to: IP address, device and user agent. This allows us to give a rating based on current scammer trends. The score, given in real time, allows our fraud system to automatically remove fraudulent users should their rating be deemed as suspicious. Should a member pass these initial checks, each time they make a change to their profile or log in to their account, they are re-scored and their rating is updated.'
Zynga also uses technology to proactively identify fraudulent players based on their chat and in-game behaviour, and takes the appropriate action:
'To empower players to flag inappropriate behavior, we have also built tools into the game, including a 'button' that is prominent on every chat, that allows players to Block, Mute or Report anyone with whom they are chatting. Our team not only reviews all reported players, but also reviews players that are frequently 'blocked' to evaluate if action should be taken.'