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Romance fraud losses soar by 73% but many scam victims stay silent, warns Which?

Fraudsters continue to leverage social-media platforms to prey on victims. Find out the six signs you′re dating a scammer.

Banks say scammers who hide behind fake online dating profiles stole £30.9m in 2021, up 73% since 2020, yet figures from Action Fraud suggest victims lost a gut-wrenching £95.1m. 

Action Fraud, the reporting centre for fraud and cybercrime in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, received 8,957 reports from victims of ‘dating scams’ in 2021. UK Finance, the banking industry body, has revealed that banks only logged 3,270 cases of what it calls ‘romance fraud’ during the same period (up 41%). 

Firms are doing more to protect users, for example, Tinder has developed a new ID verification function and other dating app providers have previously told Which? they use technology to proactively identify fraudulent users. 

But fraudsters are still finding their way through these checks, so it’s important to recognise the warning signs of romance fraud to protect yourself and others. 

What is romance fraud and who is most at risk?

Romance fraud is when a criminal lures you into a fake relationship before convincing you to send them money, or gathering enough personal information to steal your identity. 

Contact almost always starts online – via dating websites, social media, chatrooms, or even chat-enabled games such as Words with Friends. They set up fake profiles using stock images or photos stolen from other online profiles, then either wait for potential victims to contact them or actively seek out connections. 

Fraudsters tend to push for an emotional connection quickly, though they may groom victims for many months or even years. Recent data from TSB revealed that romance fraud payments are typically made over 62 days, but the longest 'relationship' spanned nearly three years and more than one in 10 (11%) lasted over half a year.

Many victims are reluctant to report a dating scam because they feel too embarrassed to speak about their experiences. Underreporting makes it difficult to assess the true extent of the problem – the latest figures from Action Fraud suggest females (48%) are more likely to report dating scams to Action Fraud than males (41%). They reported losses of £63.2m in the past 13 months to May 2022, more than double that of males at £31.6m. Most reports by men were from the 20-29 age group, while women aged 50-59 were more likely to report dating scams. 

Six signs you're dating a scammer

  1. Their profile is too good to be true: most legitimate profiles have a variety of photos but fraudsters are likely to use a few attractive stock images or photos copied from other people’s profiles. Use Google reverse image or Tineye to see if any images have been used anywhere else on the internet. These tools won’t catch all fakes, though, so watch out for other red flags. 
  2. They want to switch platforms quickly: fraudsters will typically try to move the conversation away from reputable websites or apps as soon as possible, in case their profiles are being monitored. They may suggest you continue chatting by text, social media, email, or another messaging service such as Google Hangouts.
  3. You never meet them in person: promising to meet up and cancelling is a red flag, as is finding any reason to avoid going on camera. They often claim to be living or working abroad, eg as a soldier, a medic, or an oil-rig worker. They may send you a copy of a stolen passport to ‘prove’ their identity. Even if they do agree to a face-to-face video call, this could also be faked, by stealing genuine video clips from someone else's social-media profile or even using artificial intelligence to create ‘deepfakes’ (doctored video and audio).
  4. They ask for money or gifts: it’s only a matter of time before a romance fraudster finds a way to ask you for money, urgent bills to pay, travel costs, expensive presents, or preloaded gift cards (eg from Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, or Steam). They may only ask for small sums initially, but requests can quickly escalate.
  5. They pitch an ‘easy’ investment ‘opportunity’: another tactic is to offer you supposed investment or trading tips. Having established trust, they switch the conversation and claim they can help you make some easy money. We heard from one victim who started chatting about Bitcoin with someone he met on Facebook Dating. He started out investing £500, but eventually borrowed £35,000 before realising his supposed date had sent him links to a spoof website and the ’profits’ were a simulation.
  6. They are emotionally manipulative: experts say there is a clear link between romance fraud and coercive control, more often associated with domestic abuse. Which? has previously spoken to Dr Elisabeth Carter, Associate Professor of Criminology and Forensic Linguist, about how romance fraud is a type of online grooming and abuse. Fraudsters often ask you to keep things a secret from friends and family. They may fabricate family tragedies, illness, or other dramatic events to manipulate you into wanting to help. They even scan the internet for personal details to target people who may be more emotionally vulnerable, such as the recently bereaved or divorcees. 

Read our guide to staying safe on dating websites and apps

‘I lost £55,000 to a crypto fraudster I met on Instagram’

Person texting on mobile phone

One victim (who prefers to remain anonymous) was approached on Instagram by 'Jessica'  in November 2021. They began to communicate regularly via WhatsApp and shared photos – he later discovered hers were stolen from the social-media profile of a Japanese model. 

After several weeks of grooming, the complicated ‘mining pool’ fraud that evolved led to him transferring his savings to a cryptocurrency app called Coinbase Wallet. By mid-December, the fraudsters had stolen everything. 

‘We seemed to have a lot in common, as she told me she was recently divorced and I myself had recently separated from my wife. I’d experienced some bad times in the previous few months, so I was lonely, very sensitive, and not thinking straight. She appeared in my life just at the right time.

‘After a few weeks of talking and getting closer, she started writing to me about a way of making “passive income”, which she had heard about from a friend who worked on Wall Street. Because she liked me and wanted me to be happy, she would show me how to register for it. After a few days, I decided to give it a go as I wanted to save some money for a deposit.

‘She told me to download the Coinbase Wallet app and sent me a link for a web page that could only be accessed via the app. Based on her instructions, I touched a single button to "join the mining pool".' 

In reality, this initiated something called a ‘smart contract’ that enabled the scammer to have full access to his Coinbase Wallet. At no point was he shown any warnings from Coinbase that this could happen, nor was he asked to provide any authentication to confirm he was happy to accept the contract. Agonisingly, he can see where the stolen crypto has gone, but can do nothing to get it back as the transfers are irreversible. He reported this to Action Fraud, but so far, no action has been taken. 

‘In December, I told “Jessica” that I had no more money to invest – at which point my wallet was drained of its entire contents. The scammer had decided there was no more money to make from me. I had transferred £55,000 into my Coinbase Wallet. I obviously wasn’t aware at that time that I was simply giving my money away to a criminal.

‘It has been nearly four months since I lost the majority of my life savings and even now, mentally, I cannot recover from this. A few times, I’ve thought about ending it but, luckily, I have friends and family who are supportive and are trying to help me get on with my life.

'There are many many people who have fallen for this scam and many of them involve Coinbase. Something needs to be done.’

A Coinbase spokesperson told Which?: ‘We're deeply sorry to hear about any customer that was impacted by this scam and have been investing significant resources to mitigate them. We will remain vigilant and do everything we can to keep folks who use Coinbase safe and secure.’

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. 

  • The charity Victim Support offers a free and confidential helpline available on 0808 168 9111 (lines open 24/7). 
  • Samaritans provides free and confidential support, call its helpline 116 123 (lines open 24/7).
  • Mind also has a support line, Mind Infoline, available on 0300 123 3393 (lines open 9am - 6pm, Monday - Friday).

‘I was drawn in by his easy character’

Catherine, 70, told Which? about her narrow escape after chatting to a man claiming to be a widowed marine engineer. 

‘A man added me as a friend on Facebook. He seemed very nice and sent me a photo of him and his son. He told me he was an engineer in charge of a maintenance crew delivering ships. He said his wife had died and he was bringing up his son on his own, who was at college and cared for by an aunt while he was at sea. He seemed nice, so we chatted for quite a while, around three months.

‘He emailed regularly, asking me to keep in touch as he felt lonely. He claimed he wanted to visit me when he came to London, but I didn't really trust it all as when I asked him to take photos of the ports he visited, he always made excuses why he couldn't. So, alarm bells rang.  

‘Sure enough, it all changed and he asked if he could borrow money for repairs. He said the bank wouldn't let him have the money as he didn't have the right paperwork. I said no. Then the emails – always polite and never threatening – became more urgent. At first, it was about £1,500, and then it became more frenetic.

‘I stopped all communication and blocked him on Facebook and email. I am one who trusts very few, but I was drawn in by his easy character. It only takes one slip but thankfully I wasn't bitten.’

We approached Meta, the parent company for Facebook and Instagram, but did not receive a response at the time of publication. 

Getting your money back

You should report romance fraud to your bank, as well as the police and Action Fraud. 

Romance fraud is a type of ‘authorised push payment’ (APP) fraud, where the victim is tricked into transferring money to a fraudster. The voluntary Contingency Reimbursement Model (CRM) Code aims to reimburse victims of APP fraud, but getting your money back is a lottery.

For cases assessed by banks signed up to this code, only 44% of all romance fraud losses were returned to the victim in 2021. Yet victims of invoice/mandate fraud (where criminals pose as a business or tradespeople to send fake invoices, typically by compromising an email account) got 61% of losses reimbursed.

Fight your corner if your bank refuses to refund your losses. We exclusively revealed that banks were wrongly denying APP fraud victims compensation in as many as eight in 10 cases in the 2020-21 financial year.

Government plans are in motion to force all banks to provide for mandatory reimbursement for APP fraud victims, following a Which? campaign. We will review these developments and continue pushing for fairer and more consistent treatment of APP fraud victims.  

Find out how to take your complaint to the Financial Ombudsman Service for free

Keep an eye on friends and family who may be at risk

If you think a friend or family member is at risk of romance fraud, talk to them and encourage them to report the scammer to the police. 

Action Fraud offers this advice to help protect people you know are online dating:

  • Help your friends and family to ensure they have adequate privacy settings on their social-media accounts to ensure strangers don’t have access to their personal information.
  • Stay in regular contact with your friends and family who are online dating to help spot any changes in behaviour or things that don’t seem right.
  • Make friends and family aware of the signs of romance fraud, so they are conscious of the tactics criminals use to carry out these scams and reiterate that you should never transfer money to someone you have never met in person. Encourage people to report to Action Fraud and the police if they have become a victim of romance fraud and not to be embarrassed about doing so.