A Suffolk woman who nearly fell victim to an elaborate online dating scam is keen to highlight the dangers of romance fraud to others.
The woman, from the Ipswich area, who does not wish to be named, said she was keen to tell her story to let other people know about how these types of scams operate.
Sheila (not her real name) first began online dating around six weeks ago, and the process was all very new to her.
Divorced for some 11 years, she had not entered into the internet dating world before, but was encouraged by family and friends to give it a go.
With some trepidation, Sheila, who is aged in her 60s, signed up for two dating websites.
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“I’ve been on my own for about 11 years now and not really made any [dating] effort at all really, it’s not on my mind to actually meet anyone or anything,” she said.
“But I think with all this staying in, I’ve really got quite lonely so I decided to have a look on these dating sites. I thought, ‘my children use them, my grandchildren use them’ so I signed up.”
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After not responding to a few messages, Sheila finally decided to take the plunge after a man contacted her through dating site Plenty of Fish.
Mark was a bit younger than her at 55, but the pair hit it off. They were getting on so well, Mark asked her to move their online conversation to messaging application Whatsapp.
“I remember messaging back and saying, ‘I don’t know if I’m ready for that’. I didn’t know if I wanted him to have my phone number,” she said. “But I talked to my daughter and my sister and they said, ‘that’s what people do’ so I agreed.”
Mark told Sheila he was working on an oil rig off the Norwegian coast, but wasn’t able to speak on the phone on the rig, take pictures or video chat as it could potentially cause an explosion.
Still slightly suspicious, Sheila looked all this up on the internet and, from a quick browse, everything seemed to check out, from the location to the phone warning.
Mark began to detail his life, he hailed from Swindon but had moved to Chester just before he got the job on the oil rig, and his wife had died four years ago from cancer.
He even sent Sheila a CV of his work history as a successful marine engineer.
The pair continued to chat regularly over the next few weeks, and any breaks in communication were explained as problems with reception on the rig.
Then Mark told Sheila that he had been informed last year that his father had died and he had left him a legacy.
“He told me the legacy had been lodged in the British Virgin Islands with a logistics company, and the time for it to be paid out was coming up,” Sheila said.
A story about a rig explosion was used to explain a few days of no communication from “tender and caring” Mark before he asked Sheila for a favour.
He said he had received an email from the logistics company where his dad’s legacy was lodged and they wanted to send it to him.
If it wasn’t sent in a certain period of time, authorities in the British Virgin Islands would take the legacy, Mark told Sheila.
Sheila said: “He said he’d been in touch with the people and explained to them that he was on an oil rig and couldn’t have anything delivered there. He said he’d asked them if he could find somebody trustworthy who he could have it delivered to, would they consider that. He said they’d agreed.”
Mark said he trusted Sheila and asked her to receive the money on his behalf. She questioned why it was being sent as cash, but Mark assured her that it was in his father’s will that he wanted it to be sent that way. He told her he was coming home to the UK on March 27 when he would collect the money.
Mark sent Sheila a video of the money being packaged and she was astonished at the amount – more than £1million.
Sheila then began to receive messages relating to the shipment being in transit. Once the package arrived, she was asked to pay the £4,300 VAT in order for Mark’s legacy to be released.
Sheila did not part with any money.
“I spoke to my sister about it, and we started looking into it. I saw a lot of things about oil rig scams and when I started reading, bits and pieces were all my story,” she said.
Reflecting on the scam messages, Sheila said: “I can see now he’s taken advantage of me being on my own but I liked it. It made me feel good. Maybe it was my vision of how someone could be. This man offered me a future I’d always envied other people having, I could taste it it was so real.”
T/DCI Nicola Wallace, of Suffolk police, said it is so important to talk to someone you trust, as Sheila did, if in doubt.
“Such a crime targets people both emotionally and financially to exploit and defraud them,” she said.
“While the majority of people you interact with are genuine, criminals can target any online platforms where there is a messaging function to strike up a conversation and build a friendship or romantic relationship with you.
“They will spend hours researching you for their scams, especially when committing romance fraud.
“Stop and think. It could protect you and your money. They will invent 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. If in doubt, talk to someone you trust.”