Once marginalised as a niche and slightly strange method of looking for love, online dating has boomed into an industry estimated to be worth $2bn (£1.53bn) in the US alone, and is now the most common single way in which relationships start in the UK, according to the Online Dating Association. Unsurprisingly, as the number of people dating online has risen (around 8m people in the UK are estimated to have an online dating profile, up from around 100,000 in 2000), so have the associated risks.
Given the amount of information we share about our lives online compared to even 10 years ago, critics have argued our relaxed attitude to virtual strangers has heightened the likelihood of thieves striking lucky. Reports of dating fraud in the UK rose 32 per cent between 2013 and 2015, and hit an all-time high when 3,889 victims handed out £39m last year, National Fraud Intelligence Bureau (NFIB) found – equating to around 350 reports a month. Victims tend to transfer money to their fraudster within a month of striking up conversation, and lose £10,000 on average.
The scammers are ruthless and sophisticated, preying on both kindness and insecurities to try and wheedle money out of people who have opened themselves up in the pursuit of love. As with the majority of fraud, the true number of victims and value of lost cash is likely to be much higher, as victims can feel unwilling or unsure of how to contact the relevant authorities. To take a chance on love takes courage, and there is something inherently cruel in trying to take advantage of someone when a broken heart is as likely an outcome as an empty wallet.
The rise of digital romance fraudsters is particularly concerning when you consider how many more people are seeking partners in later life. The number of brides and grooms aged 65 and over rose 46 per cent between 2004 and 2014, which the Office of National Statistics suggests is down to older people feeling more economically and socially connected, in addition to living longer lives. The demographic’s increased use of the internet in recent years could have fuelled a wave of over 65s meeting their partners online, it added.
Combatting dating fraud boils down to a combination of educating internet users of all ages, including both ones in school and past retirement, about the methods criminals will use to try and gain their trust and cloud their judgement in a romantic context, and greater efforts on the parts of the apps and sites to clamp down on dodgy members. The internet is a wonderful tool for finding love: don’t let the scammers exploit your optimism to find it.