SEVENTY people reported being victims of online dating fraud in Dorset during the last year, and were conned out of more than £384,000 between them, Dorset Police have revealed.
The figures have been released as it emerged the number of reported romance fraud victims nationally had risen by 26 per cent – partly due to increasing numbers of people meeting online during lockdown.
Police are now urging people to ensure they stay safe online as they work with partner agencies and other forces nationally to tackle the growing issue.
Romance or dating fraud occurs when people think they have met the perfect person online, but they are actually using a fake profile to form a relationship. They gain trust over a number of weeks or months and have their victims believe they are in a loving and caring relationship.
However, their end goal is only ever to get money, personal information or access to a bank account to launder money.
Dorset Police revealed that between August 2019 and August 2020, Action Fraud received 70 reports from victims of romance fraud across the county.
The losses reported by the victims during this time came to £384,400 – averaging just under £5,500 per victim.
During June, July and August, Action Fraud received more than 600 reports nationally per, indicating that people may have met, and begun talking to, romance fraudsters during the national lockdown caused by the Covid-19 outbreak.
Acting Detective Sergeant Will Burnett said: “This type of fraud is devastating for the victim both financially and emotionally. Scammers work out who is lonely and very slowly start to creep into their lives, promising love and companionship.
“This is a sophisticated crime and it’s one where almost anyone can become a victim. Whilst making the victim feel safe and secure, they are constantly looking for ways to obtain their money.
“Victims are often left penniless and terribly distraught and some scams can last for months and years. It is a very cruel scam.
“There are plenty of ways to protect yourself or friends or family members you may be concerned about. Firstly it’s important to remember that not everyone is who they say they are.
“Be cautious how much information you share about yourself online and no matter how long you’ve been in contact with someone online and how much you trust them, don’t send them any money or give them access to your bank account.
“If you are on a dating site, stay on the site messaging system. Too often the criminal will want to switch to another platform that is less regulated soon after first establishing contact. If someone asks for financial help, you should report them. Most online platforms have a reporting tool.”
Dorset Police and Crime Commissioner Martyn Underhill said: “I’ve come across desperately sad cases in which victims have been conned out of their life savings by fraudsters who had convinced them they were their soulmates.
“Romance fraud is one of the most insidious crimes, in which vulnerable people – often lonely, recently bereaved, or suffering from depression – are groomed by criminals who have gotten into their heads and won their trust.
“Sadly, the isolation caused by the ongoing pandemic has created the perfect conditions for these fraudsters, with many more people using the internet to meet and talk. Please be aware of the techniques used by romance fraudsters. And if you are a victim of this type of fraud, remember it isn’t anything to be ashamed of – do report it so you can go on to get the help you need.”
During October the City of London Police, the national lead force for fraud, will be co-ordinating enforcement activity across the UK and overseas to target and ultimately arrest criminals suspected of committing romance fraud.
The top five platforms where victims reported first interacting with the criminal committing romance fraud were Facebook, Plenty of Fish, Instagram, Tinder and Match.com.
As part of the campaign the Match Group, who own OK Cupid, Plenty of Fish, Tinder and Match.com, are running romance fraud protection adverts throughout October on these platforms, to inform their users how to spot the signs of a romance fraud and how to protect themselves online.