As a charity this week revealed a 26 per cent hike in reports of so-called romance fraud this week, Yorkshire's police forces have said people have been more vulnerable to scams during the lockdown period as more turn to apps and websites to find love.
The so-called scams involve fraudsters making fake profiles on sites such as Plenty of Fish or eharmony, then work to gain victims' trust and manipulate them into sending money, usually by inventing scenarios which garner sympathy and get them to pay for false medical treatment or flights.
The Covid-19 pandemic has also provided crooks an excuse to ask for money for medical treatment due to the backlog of cancelled operations.
People in Yorkshire reported a collective £3.18m stolen through more than 450 different cases in one year, with a considerable increase in cases over the recent summer months.
Humberside Police saw victims lose out to a combined £850,000 in the year ending March 2020, while more recent figures for the 12 months up to August this year show £611,000 and £426,000 was stolen from people through romance scams in South and North Yorkshire respectively.
One victim in Humberside lost more than a quarter of a million - £260,000 - to a scam artist through online dating.
A total of £1.3m was reported stolen to West Yorkshire Police in the year up to August from 214 reports made to charity Action Fraud.
Meanwhile, Bradford Crown Court heard this week how a 45-year-old woman stole thousands from her employers to pay a romance fraudster in the city.
Ilyiea Ali was jailed in 2018 for stealing from Information Security Forum Ltd (ISF). A compensation order to the value of £662,727 was made on Thursday, after the court heard half the money Ali stole was given to a fraudster.
During June, July and August this year, Action Fraud received more than 600 reports a month of romance fraud, indicating people may have met scam artists online during the lockdown while bars were closed and everyone was forced to stay at home.
Andy Foster, from South Yorkshire Police's Fraud Co-ordination Team, said: “Lockdown restrictions meant people could not meet in person for a number of months, which led to many seeking to form new connections online. While using the internet can be a great way to meet people and form relationships, there’s also a great risk of being lured into a romance scam as fraudsters know how to take advantage of people’s desire for human contact.
“Unfortunately, we’ve seen that circumstances caused by coronavirus were in fact used by fraudsters as a ‘hook’ to extort money. For example, some have invented lies about needing medical treatment, or urgent travel expenses to leave a country, or funds to keep afloat after a bogus job loss caused by the pandemic."
Victims of romance fraud are often in denial they are being scammed, detectives have warned, as they may be unwilling to believe the person they are in love with is betraying their trust.
Most victims tend to be over the age of 40, with signs they are being scammed including their new "partner" telling them they work overseas, in the military or high-flying jobs.
Scam artists will also give excuses not to chat over video or meet in person and saying they urgently need money for critical emergencies such as medical or family matters.
North Yorkshire Police Financial Abuse Safeguarding Officer Andy Fox said anyone can be targeted.
“There can be a perception that the people who fall victim to romance fraudsters are of a certain age or gender," he said.
"But the reports we receive show that literally anyone can be taken in by these calculating criminals. We’ve seen both men and women targeted with some as young as teenagers right up to those in their eighties.”
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