Back when I was online dating, a decade ago, I was only ever approached by a handful of scammers. They had profile pictures of inexplicably shirtless male models, and told me they’d fallen in love at first sight at my photo (which for a while was of my hamster). In the intervening years, these criminals have become far more sophisticated – and numerous.
Romance scammers have proliferated during the pandemic. Research from Action Fraud in October found victims in Yorkshire had lost £3.18m in over 450 scams in a year.
The criminals have stepped up their game too, with more sophisticated use of technology: mocking up phone messages, or even video messages from other people’s social media.
They’ll often adopt the persona of people who live overseas, like military personnel or doctors working in less developed parts of the world. They’re more likely to opt for reasonably good-looking pictures, because very attractive scam profiles are too easy to spot.
But the real sophistication comes in how they draw people into feeling they’re in a very intense relationship.
They start by love-bombing their victims, showering them with love and affection, and focusing entirely on their needs. It’s one reason why they prefer to target romantics who are open for an intense whirlwind romance.
Often there’s a gang of criminals working around the clock, so they keep up a flow of messages at all hours of the day and night. By monopolising their time and attention, it also helps isolate victims from their friends, so they have less opportunity to question what’s going on.
Some will cash in quickly with newer techniques designed to part you from your cash. They might, for example, send you a link that appears to be from the dating site, so you can prove who you are. In reality they’ve created a website to harvest your data.
Some will persuade you to move off the dating site, and onto a platform that enables them to access your computer. They might turn your webcam on, and get footage they can use to blackmail you, or install malware, so they can keep an eye on your details when you use internet banking.
More typically, they’ll put weeks or months into building a relationship, and then ask for money. Often this is built around wanting to see you but having to deal with flights or visas, or any number of financial obstacles to leaving the country.
Alternatively, they’ll present some kind of crisis, and ask for your help. The aim of the crisis is to force you to act fast without thinking too much about what you’re doing. Their requests for money start small and straightforward, and over time they may get more involved and the money involved often grows.
It’s often at the tail end of the scam that someone will talk to their friends, which is why people find it so difficult to believe their sensible and intelligent friend has sent money to someone they’ve never met, over a claim that sounds far-fetched.
In February this year, one victim in South Yorkshire told of how he had been persuaded by a woman he was in a relationship with that she needed money to free a friend from jail, after she’d been caught smuggling gold.
It’s like the horrible allegory of boiling a frog. If you put a frog into boiling water it will jump out and live. If you put it into cold water and heat it gradually enough to boiling point, it will stay in and die. Victims have been gradually warmed up with an intense relationship with their ideal partner, that has built for weeks or months, so if we come to the story cold, it’s very difficult to understand.
As a University of Warwick study on romance scam victims found, believing a scam doesn’t mean you’re stupid: victims are more likely to be intelligent and more highly educated than average. Becoming a victim just means you’ve trusted someone you thought you were in a relationship with, which you’d expect from anyone in a loving relationship.
It’s vital we don’t blame victims, because it makes it harder for them to seek help. Already our research shows that only 24 per cent of people would tell their close family if they were the victim of a scam, and a large minority wouldn’t even report the crime to the police. If they’re shamed into silence, the scammers are free to continue targeting other victims.
Instead, we need to be aware of the potential risks, and of the signs that someone is being targeted. Talk to your friends who are online dating. If they spend all hours talking online, express strong emotions very quickly, seem to know remarkably little about their partner, and have endless excuses for why they haven’t met up, these are all red flags. If they’ve parted with money, you need to step in.
If you’re dating online right now, there are few ways to protect yourself. The photo should be the first check – using a reverse image search on Google to see if it has been used elsewhere.
You should also be wary about revealing a lot about yourself, or turning your webcam on. If, at any stage, they ask for money or personal details, this should ring alarm bells. Don’t part with either, and stop talking to them immediately.
It’s not easy to stop, especially because criminals will target people who show signs of wholehearted commitment at an early stage. But if you’re in any doubt, take a break. Talk to your family and friends, and ask for the support you need to get away from the scammers. You can also approach the support group that has been set up by Humberside Police and Victim
Support to help victims of romance scams.