In Bedfordshire alone between August 2019 and August 2020, police recorded a total of 68 reports of “catfishing” or romance fraud, with victims’ losses totalling £1.4m. That equates to an average loss of £20,588 per victim, far higher than the national average of just over £10,000.
Several forces are taking part in a campaign this October to raise awareness of the practice, following a 26% rise in reports to Action Fraud in the last year.
Sean O’Neil, Beds Police’s online security adviser, said: “In Bedfordshire, we have found victims being targeted on social media, as well as dating websites and apps, by fraudsters who claim to be engineers or military service personnel working abroad.
“As a result, we have seem victims losing their savings and pensions.
“Such fraudsters are persistent and will continue to pressurise their victims … in some cases until even loans have been taken out.
“In Bedfordshire, we have dealt with both men and women who have lost between £50,000 and £100,000.
“The money is quickly transferred abroad, leaving the victim emotionally and financially at a loss.”
Romance fraud occurs when victims think they have met the perfect partner online, but the other person is in fact a fake profile set up by a criminal or gang to extract money from the victim.
Criminals can often spend several weeks gaining their victims’ trust, making them believe they are in a caring relationship. However, the criminal’s end goal is only ever to get money and personal information.
The top five platforms where victims reported first interacting with the criminal were Facebook, Plenty of Fish, Instagram, Tinder and Match.com.
Over the past year, losses reported by victims across the UK totalled £66,335,239 with the average loss per victim at just over £10,000.
During June, July and August 2020, Action Fraud received more than 600 reports per month of romance fraud, suggesting an increase during the national lockdown caused by the coronavirus outbreak.
Temporary DCS Alex Rothwell, from the City of London Police, said: “Romance fraud is a devastating crime that impacts victims both financially and emotionally. It is a crime that we in policing across the UK, are committed to tackling with help from key partners.
“Through this campaign we want to empower people to understand what to look out for and feel confident that if they have fallen victim to a fraud, to report it to us.
“Criminals are experts at impersonating people. They spend hours researching you for their scams, especially when committing romance fraud. We’re reminding everyone to stop and think: fall for the person, not the profile, it could protect you and your money.”
Diana Fawcett, chief executive of the independent charity Victim Support, added: “Lockdown restrictions meant people could not meet in person for a number of months, which led to many seeking to form new connections online.
“Whilst 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.
“It’s important to be aware that not everyone is who they say they are.”