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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: