Romance fraud is the engineering of a supposed friendship or relationship for fraudulent, financial gain.
Suspects invest significant amounts of time into socially engineering their victims – knowing that as they gain the victim’s trust, their chances of extracting considerable funds from them simultaneously increase.
Fraudsters do not initially ask the victims for money; instead they spend time communicating with them online and building trust. By the time they ask for large sums of money, the reasons for requiring financial assistance have greater plausibility. This is known as the ‘grooming period’.
Typically, the longer the period between the date of first contact and the date of the first financial transfer, the higher the amount of money handed over.
Data implies that a high proportion of victims are lonely, widowed or recently bereaved, have suffered from a recent break up and/or suffering from depression.
The financial losses are high and victims can often be in denial, making self-reporting low and repeat victimisation likely.
Romance fraud is one of the fastest growing crime types affecting the vulnerable, so much so that in Sussex all victims of romance fraud are treated as vulnerable by crime type.
Reports made to Action Fraud reveal that £50,766,602 was lost to romance fraud in 2018 – an average of £11,145 per victim and a 27% increase on the previous year.
A 53 year old man fell victim to romance fraud after a divorce led him to use dating sites. He set up a profile on a dating site in the hope of building a new relationship.
He was contacted by a woman who claimed to be from Spain but living in the USA. Photos were sent but he never saw the woman in real life or on video. Contact with the woman moved from the dating site to both telephone and Skype calls, as well as exchanging emails.
Soon after making contact and building a relationship, the woman asked for money to live as she couldn’t afford to buy food and needed a new passport to be able to travel closer to him. Overall the man sent over £15,000 to this fraudster whom he believed was his girlfriend in America.
The victim is now receiving support from various services and after police advice no longer sends any money.
A 66 year old man, divorced and living alone, signed up to various online dating sites and met various women online. He kept contact with these women via email, telephone and text but never saw them in person.
The man's daughter raised her concerns to the police, explaining that her father had sent over £100,000 to various women he believed to be dating. He believed this money was needed for rent, bills and to pay for flights to see him.
This scam took place over a five year period. The man used money service bureaus to transfer money abroad but has now been blocked by these services to prevent further loss.
The victim is now in close care of his daughter and receiving further support from police and victim services.
How to keep yourself and loved ones safe from Romance fraud scammers
Don’t rush into an online relationship – get to know the person, not the profile: ask plenty of questions.
Analyse their profile – confirm the person's identity. Check the person is genuine by putting their name, profile pictures or any repeatedly-used phrases and the term ‘dating scam’ into your search engine.
Talk to your friends and family - be wary of anyone who tells you not to tell others about them.
Evade scams - never send money or share your bank details with someone you’ve only met online, no matter what reason they give or how long you've been speaking to them.
Stay on the dating site messenger service - don't use email, phone, social media or other messaging apps until you’re confident the person is who they say they are.
Signs to spot
Be wary of giving out personal information on a website or chatroom. Fraudsters will quickly contact you, often showing you glamorous photos of themselves and gaining your trust.
A fraudster will make conversation more personal to get information out of you, but won’t tell you much about themselves that you can check or verify.
Romance fraudsters often claim to have high ranking roles that keep them away from home for a long time. This could be a ploy to deter your suspicions around not meeting in person.
Fraudsters will usually attempt to steer you away from chatting on a legitimate dating site that can be monitored. Stay on the platform that you started using initially, rather than switching to email, text or phone.
A fraudster may tell stories to target your emotions and get you to give them money. They may claim they have an ill relative or are stranded in a country they don’t want to be in. They may not ask you directly for money, hoping instead that you’ll offer it out of the goodness of your heart. Do not do this.
Sometimes the fraudsters will send the victim valuable items such as laptops, computers and mobile phones, asking them to resend them elsewhere. They will invent a reason as to why they need the goods sent, but this may just be a way for them to cover up their criminal activity. Alternatively they may ask a victim to buy the goods themselves and send them elsewhere.
Often, they will ask victims to accept money into their bank account and then transfer it to someone else using bank accounts, MoneyGram, Western Union, iTunes vouchers or other gift cards. These scenarios are very likely to be forms of money laundering and you could be committing a criminal offence.
What to do if you suspect Romance fraud is taking place.
Romance fraud is a serious crime. If you suspect it, you must report it.
If you, or someone you know is vulnerable to Romance fraud please report it online or call us on 101.
Alternatively, you can report suspicions of Romance fraud anonymously to Scamalytics. Using an online form you can enter images, names and details of potential Romance fraudsters. This not only keeps yourself and your loved ones safe from Romance fraud, but could prevent others from falling victim too.
If you or someone you know has been a victim of Romance fraud you can find further advice from Victim Support.