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Romance Fraud – protect your heart and identity

With Valentine’s day looming and another lockdown in session the BogusBuster team thought it was crucial to revisit Romance scams and how to avoid them. Whilst we covered this topic in a blog in 2020, sadly this type of fraud goes largely unreported due to the shame and embarrassment associated with having your heart and money stolen. The global pandemic has proved to be the perfect setting for criminals to target vulnerable men and women who are looking for companionship. The statistics are frightening with Action Fraud reporting a 15% rise in Romance fraud from the previous year (Source: BBC Sounds 12/01/21) and financial losses totalling millions of pounds.  

What is Romance Fraud? 

Romance fraud is when someone sets up a fake profile on a dating app, social media, or internet dating site with the intention of stealing your money or using your personal details for identity fraud. Also known as dating fraud or catfishing, this crime can happen across any dating internet website, social media, or app. The scammer will connect with their target, build rapport over days, weeks or months, and, typically, try to use the stolen details to commit fraud or ask directly for money. The victim thinks they have met their perfect match, with some even receiving marriage proposals – this scam is cruel on so many levels and easier to fall for than you may think. 

But I would never send money to a stranger! 

It’s easy for many of us to think we are too clever to be conned, especially online from the comfort of our couch. However, we are all just one click away from being scammed when using any form of digital communications. Scammers are professionals, slick operators, many working out of call centres and targeting potential victims across the world at the same time. They are so convincing, luring their victims with a web of lies, and will have an answer to every possible question thrown their way. The current pandemic makes this situation even more difficult to detect with strict social distancing and travel restrictions in place, not to mention restaurants, pubs and cafes closed. It’s the ‘new normal’ to converse online and not be able to legitimately catch up. Combine this with many people being socially isolated and craving company, it’s a recipe for disaster.  

A common theme stated by many victims is that they believed they were chatting with someone who was based overseas, such as an oil rig worker, medic or in the military. One such story reported in 2020 during the pandemic saw the victim falling for an elaborate trail of deceit, leading to a marriage proposal and subsequently the loss of thousands of pounds. Clare (not her real name) from England was an educated, professional single lady in her 50s who met a charming British man called Mark who was serving in the special forces in Afghanistan.  

What started as an exchange of messages on a well know dating App, quickly moved away to private WhatsApp chats. There were exchanges of photos, video footage and a very convincing story where Clare thought Mark had almost lost his life whilst on a special mission, all ploys to gain her trust. Mark proposed after this ‘brush with death’ and wooed Clare with promises of a happy life together when he returned to the UK. However, first he desperately needed Clare’s help to keep safe a huge amount of money he’d been awarded for an act of bravery, and he needed money for flights, which he would pay back with the money he had received. He supported the story by showing the money briefly in a video chat. When questioned by Clare, all of Mark’s responses seemed feasible, especially the clincher; this money would help set them up for a comfortable life together when they married. 

This type of story is only too familiar, and in the end some of Clare’s suspicions were realised when she told a trusted friend of her concerns. By sharing Mark’s photos with this friend, it led to the discovery that ‘Mark’ was in fact not real, that the profile was fake, and his image had been stolen from the internet many years ago and used to fool countless women across the world.  

Luckily for Clare, because she reported the crime so quickly and due to her bank (HSBC) being involved in a scheme that recognised ‘push payment’ scams, she got her money back. This was a huge amount of money, totalling almost £17.5K, money she didn’t have but had borrowed on a credit card to send to her new fiancé. Sadly, not everyone who is the victim of such scams gets their money back, Clare was one of the lucky ones. Hopefully, her story raises awareness and stops others from becoming a victim.  

Online dating is the norm for people of all ages with 1 in 5 relationships starting online (https://infogram.com/uk-online-dating-statistics-1grv02gkwz1lm1x).  Before you swipe right, check out these tips to help you avoid a digital romance scam.  

Head to Google reverse image search 

A Google reverse image search is a handy tool. Fake profiles usually use images of attractive people to lure you in. Just like putting words into the search bar, any image can be searched on the internet. Just open a browser on your desktop (this doesn’t work on mobile), head to ‘Google Image Search’ and upload the image you want to look up. Google will then try to match the image and find similar ones on the web. In the case of Clare’s story, ‘Mark’s’ image came up straight away. Additionally, doing an image search alongside a search on the person’s name and the word ‘scam’ is an easy and harmless check you can do for free to keep safe.   

Keep the chat on the dating app or website  

A common trick used by fraudster’s is to quickly encourage a move away from the chat room of the dating website or app. Until you are 100% certain of a person’s identity always stay chatting on the official site and be wary about oversharing or giving your email or mobile number. Scammers will try and turn the conversation from a friendly chat to romance quite quickly, with lots of questions about you and not a lot about themselves. Make sure you ask plenty of questions about your potential companion and question any irregularities. 

Don’t keep it a secret, speak to a friend 

In many cases the fraudster may ask you to keep the relationship a secret or make excuses not to meet, talk on the phone or video chat. In the case of Clare, when questioned, ‘Mark’ had advised he could not speak on the phone due to ‘security issues’ at his army base camp. Another example could be that if you do manage to set up a phone call or video chat, the call is brief or suddenly interrupted due to a ‘technical issue’ or emergency. All these types of excuses should be a red flag. While it may seem fun to keep your budding romance a secret this usually indicates a scam. To stay safe, we recommend speaking to a trusted person in your life; a fresh, independent perspective could be the reality check that saves you thousands. 

Don’t send money to a person you’ve never met in person 

Regardless of the story you are given, it’s never advisable to send money or give your bank details to someone you have not met. This seems like common sense, but these fraudsters who have been grooming their victims for weeks can be extremely persuasive. It’s understandable that our hearts can rule our heads, especially if you think you’ve met your perfect match. Treat any requests for flights, a medical emergency, sick relative, business venture or funeral with caution. If you question or refuse the request, the scammer may use the situation to turn against you, using emotional blackmail to threaten to end the relationship.  Always take a step back from the situation, don’t feel pressured and talk to a neutral party. Equally, never agree to receive money from a person you’ve never met as this could involve you unknowingly taking part in a money laundering crime.  

Beware of delayed message responses 

If you are chatting to someone online usually the conversation is free flowing and timely. One warning sign that some victims have noted has been delayed returned messages. For example, in hindsight, Clare recalled getting generic type messages such as ‘Morning babe, what are you having for dinner?’. When she responded she recalls that it could be a long time before receiving a response. This may seem minor, however remember, behind the scenes this online love interest may be simultaneously sending out lots of messages across the world, with yours just one in a queue of many. 

There are many happy couples who have met successfully online, but to everyone searching for love online it’s important to be aware of the possible risks. Sadly, like many other online scams, there is a stigma attached to Romance fraud with many victims not coming forward as they feel embarrassed and ashamed. Victims of dating fraud should be praised for bravely telling their stories and raising awareness of this crime. It’s highly upsetting losing money, however also having your trust and emotions manipulated is highly distressing. Support for victims is available at Victim Support

Stay safe online this Valentine’s Day. For more tips on avoiding Romance scams please check out our previous blog. If you’d like to report a romance scam crime call the police on 101 or report it to Action Fraud on 0300 123 2040.