A devastated father says his marriage has fallen apart after his wife sent £20,000 to an online scammer posing as an American war hero.
Steve Roberts, 50, is one of hundreds of people a year whose lives have been wrecked by “romance fraud” swindlers preying on unhappy or lonely women.
A former government counter-fraud adviser reveals the number of known cases are just the “tip of an iceberg” because victims are usually too embarrassed to report it.
And latest figures show nearly a thousand known people were swindled out of nearly £8 million in the first six months of this year.
Steve’s wife fell into the trap after a Nigerian scammer messaged her on social media posing as a US serviceman.
He gave her the sob story that he needed cash to fund medical treatment for his sick child – but that the money needed to be wired to Nigeria.
No alarm bells rang – and if they had, a Google image search would have revealed the sick crook was using a dead US soldier’s picture that had been used by other romance fraudsters
Steve’s unsuspecting wife wired the swindler thousands of pounds.
He only became suspicious when he found a secret mobile phone she had left under the bed.
When he confronted her, she confessed to talking to a mystery man online.
The fraud has wrecked Steve’s marriage.
He said: “She might have been the one who fell victim to the scammer, but my life has fallen apart too.
“I can’t even begin to describe the stress this has caused.”
Steve had no idea what was going on until he found the mobile and confronted her.
“I didn’t understand why she had two phones.
“It was only then she admitted what she’d been doing, yet she still believed what she’d had with this man was real,” he says.
“It took weeks to convince her he wasn’t who he said he was. I looked at all of the transactions and I couldn’t get my head around why it didn’t ring alarm bells that he wanted her to send the money to Nigeria and not the US.
“I Googled his picture and realised he was an American soldier who’d died in 2012.
His picture had been used by scammers all over the world. The trust between us was gone and we broke up.
“We’d been together more than 20 years and I thought I knew everything about her. I was wrong.”
Research by UK Finance, the voice of the banking and finance industry, shows romance fraud rose by nearly a third in the first half of this year. A known 935 people fell victim to crooks who conned them out of £7.9million.
Some had physical relationships with their swindlers but others were persuaded to send vast sums of money to people they’d never met.
A romance fraud gang were jailed in August for conning two women out of £240,000 after grooming them on dating sites.
One victim, 63-year-old Sharon Turner, handed her life savings over after being matched with a man named Kevin.
But he didn’t exist and his profile was being run by six fraudsters.
Sharon, of London, said: “I was in denial about how much money I’d given, but in the end it was close to £200,000. I was mortified. When it finally hit me, I had suicidal thoughts.
“Financially, I’ve been ruined. I’ll be paying people back a long time. I hope others can learn from my mistakes.”
This week, a great-grandmother told how she gave £8,000 to fraudsters after her partner died.
Sally Jones, 74, joined a dating site as she was “looking for someone to play cards with”.
She was matched with a man called Harry, who sent her flowers and champagne but begged her to make huge money transfers via Western Union.
She said: “Everyone wants to be loved. But if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.”
She came to her senses after the scammer refused to meet in person.
Sally, of Littlehampton, West Sussex, lied to her daughters about where the money was going.
She said: “It could have torn my family apart.”
Susan Perry, 73, was contacted online by a man who said his name was Gideon and soon afterwards she sent him £40,000. Her husband Gordon, also 73, stood by her when she confessed what she’d done.
Susan said: “I feel such a fool. I got completely carried away with the fantasy of being swept off my feet.”
Meanwhile, Steve and his wife, who split in April, are in the process of divorce.
Steve said: “There had been no sign anything was wrong in the marriage.
“We were planning a holiday and my 50th birthday party.
“Now our boys’ lives have been shattered and we can’t even begin to explain to them why that is.”
Steve’s wife has made a complaint to a specialist police fraud unit, but the scammer has yet to be caught.
It’s unlikely that she or Steve will get their money back.
Of the £7.9million lost this year, only £500,000 was returned to victims.
- Coronation Street’s Kym Marsh – who once had her identity stolen – will confront romance fraudsters in BBC1 consumer rights show For Love Or Money from Monday November 4 to Friday November 8 at 9.15am
Fraud expert says known cases of romance fraud ‘tip of an iceberg’
Fraud expert Andy Knight said online romance fraud is thriving because it is so hard to nail scammers.
The ex-government counter-fraud adviser also revealed official statistics on romance scams did not reflect the true number of victims because of the embarrassment factor.
And lack of police funding is not helping.
Knight, who works for not-for-profit organisation Security and Fraud Experts (SAFE) said: “Victims often feel foolish and don’t want to come forward, so the reported statistics are probably the tip of the iceberg.
“These people are professionals and it’s a numbers game. If you are chatting to 20 different women, you’re more likely to get someone to send you money. And the issue with any type of fraud is that, with the way police funding has gone, it’s not necessarily a priority.
“Action Fraud have a huge backlog of cases but there are few convictions for romance fraud.
“Cases can be hard to prove when the offender is not in the country. Also the CPS looks at a case based on the financial loss to the individual.
“A scam could have a considerable emotional impact on an individual, but if the victim sent the scammer £650 for a plane ticket and that was the end of it, it’s going to go to the bottom of the pile.”