Criminals exploit Covid-19 pandemic to prey on lonely and vulnerable with hundreds of romance fraud victims reported to Yorkshire's police forces

Offenders have exploited the Covid-19 pandemic to prey on the lonely and vulnerable as figures revealed there were more than hundreds of victims of romance fraud reported to police across Yorkshire with a loss of £2.9 million during last year alone.

Andy Foster, a Fraud Protect Officer for South Yorkshire Police.

The four Yorkshire police forces recorded a total of 444 reports of romance fraud, but there are fears there could be hundreds more with many victims too ashamed to report what has happened.

Senior police officers in the region have warned that the Covid-19 pandemic and associated lockdowns have enabled fraudsters to capitalise on people's isolation and the amount of time they have been spending online.

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Detective Sergeant Ben Robinson, of Humberside Police told The Yorkshire Post that the repeated lockdowns caused by the Covid-19 pandemic have given fraudsters the "ultimate defence".

He said: "Lockdown has undoubtedly led to an increase in the number of people falling victim to romance fraud.

"These criminals traditionally target loneliness and isolation and during lockdown a lot of people were experiencing these feelings. They are also away from their support groups who could perhaps question them if they have met someone online.

"People could have been a victim of romance fraud for over a year and still not realised it as the 'relationship' is ongoing.

“Criminals can give the excuse that they cannot meet up with their partner in person because of lockdown or arrange to meet up and then cancel at the last minute stating they have Covid.

"They can also say that they need money to get a vaccine if they are abroad. Lockdown has given these criminals the ultimate defence."

The figures have shown that West Yorkshire Police received 200 reports of romance fraud, followed by South Yorkshire with 95 cases, North Yorkshire with 76 instances and Humberside with 73 reports.

A total of 59 per cent of victims were female, with those aged 50 to 59 targeted the most, followed by those aged 40 to 49.

The summer months saw most cases reported to police across the region, with 54 offences reported in July, 40 in June and 38 in August.

Recent examples include a retired truck driver from South Yorkshire who lost the £15,000 he had saved for his funeral to a criminal claiming to be a woman in London he met on a dating site, and a woman from East Yorkshire who lost £265,000 to a fraudster posing as an Army man who needed medical treatment.

Andy Foster, a Fraud Protect Officer for South Yorkshire Police, said: "With the coronavirus pandemic and the restrictions placed upon us, more people are seeking companionship online, creating more opportunities for criminals to target victims in romance fraud scams.

"Fraudsters who commit these offences often pose as engineers, oil rig workers, doctors or military service personnel.

“Once they make contact, they usually ask the victim to move from the social media or dating site where they met onto another platform such as WhatsApp or Google Hangouts.

“This is because there is less chance of their crimes being detected on these platforms.

"Criminals who commit this type of fraud are masters of manipulation and will go to great lengths to create a false reality in which an individual feels they are making reasonable and rational decisions.

“They can groom their victim over a period of weeks, months and, in some cases, years."

Worryingly, people who have fallen victim to romance fraud are also more likely to be scammed for a second or third time and with dating sites recording huge rises in the number of members, police are warning people to be on their guard.

Andy Fox, a Financial Abuse Safeguarding Officer at North Yorkshire Police, said: " It's so mentally draining being in the lockdown and people are using dating apps to find connections and that's what fraudsters are looking for.

"It's not within one or two days where someone gets a message saying 'can you send me some money', they spend weeks building that trust up and then when they know they have it, they test the waters and ask for a couple of hundreds of pounds.

“If that works, then they start asking for thousands and it all adds up.

"Once someone has become a victim of romance fraud it might not stop there. People who do fall victim to romance fraud could have their details passed onto other scammers.

"If someone's been a victim to one fraud, they're more than likely going to be targeted again.

"Details of fraud victims are sold on in the same way that details are passed on for home and car insurance and marketing purposes.

“Suddenly, the fact they've been a victim already becomes a very marketable commodity to other organised crime groups. They think it's an easy target."

If someone is worried they may be falling victim to romance fraud, or they are concerned for a family member or friend, they are being urged to contact the Action Fraud helpline on 0300 123 2040.