Commentary: The pandemic has worsened the heartless crime of being conned for love | #datingscams | #lovescams | #facebookscams

Tina’s story was featured on the BBC series this week. Over-55s clearly offer rich pickings for criminals as they’re more likely to have pensions and property assets to be plundered. 

However, the launch of , a spin-off of the hugely popular US film and reality series, shows people of any age, gender or sexual orientation can be targeted.

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Catfishing — luring someone into an online relationship by creating a fake profile — is not in itself a crime. The MTV series (you can watch it via Now TV or Amazon Prime) shows countless examples of women who are tricked into sending intimate photos to seemingly attractive men they’ve met online. 

When tracked down and confronted by the show’s presenters, the perpetrators turn out to be nothing like their profile pictures, which have been harvested online.

The first episode of Catfish UK featured Emma, a single parent in Brighton, who had been ghosted by online boyfriend Harlan after she refused requests to lend him money.

A simple reverse image search of his profile picture found photos taken from the real life Facebook account of a naval officer had been used to set up fake profiles on dating sites across Europe, with plenty of victims persuaded into parting with thousands of euros.

As the sums at stake are large, scammers are prepared to invest a lot of time in getting to know their victims and establishing trust. They can exchange messages for months before asking for money, and use elaborate excuses to string them along — for years, in some cases.

UK Finance statistics show the average victim of a romance scam is tapped five times before they realise they’ve been conned. Distressingly, many of the victims who agree to appear on TV shows still desperately want to believe that their scam relationship is real.

The time elapsed makes it harder to reclaim this money, but more victims who challenge their banks over liability for the losses are now being refunded.

UK banks adopted a voluntary code in 2019 to refund those who fell victim to fraud through no fault of their own. Before this, just 6 per cent of sums lost to romance fraud were ever returned. The latest figure is 38 per cent — a considerable increase.

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Unsurprisingly, banks are adamant that online platforms must do more to prevent this type of crime. “We are seeing a worrying rise in online and technology-enabled scams that use digital platforms to target victims directly,” says Katy Worobec, head of economic crime at UK Finance, which is urging the government to use the upcoming online safety bill to ensure platforms do more to protect consumers.

“Taking down scam adverts on search engines, removing fake profiles on online dating websites and tackling fraudulent content on social media,” are three urgently-needed actions, Worobec says.


As TV documentaries such as Catfish show, performing a “reverse image search” on a profile photo takes seconds, and often reveals multiple dating profiles in different names, and sometimes explicit scam warnings from other victims.

Why shouldn’t the online dating sites be obliged to perform these searches to weed out rogue profiles?

Because criminals swiftly move conversations with victims offline, the dating websites say they’re not responsible for what happens next — and even as online fraud skyrockets, there was a notable absence of scam warnings on the homepages of those I scrolled through this week.

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