West Mercia Police have revealed 111 reports were made by victims in Shropshire and the wider West Mercia region in 2020, with the average age of the victims being between 49 and 52.
The crime involves the victim being convinced they are in a relationship with the fraudster, who then coaxes them into handing over money, often insisting it will be repaid when they eventually meet and can be together.
National reports were up by 35 per cent in 2020 compared to the year before according to National Action Fraud, and police believe the popularity of online dating and the Covid-19 pandemic created a perfect storm for offenders to exploit victims who were isolated from friends and family.
West Mercia Police Detective Sergeant Jon Cooper from the Economic Crime Unit said: “Romance scams are both emotionally and financially damaging for victims. The increasing popularity of online dating services has made it easier for criminals to target victims, so we urge everyone to be cautious and follow the advice of the Take Five to Stop Fraud campaign, which offers straight-forward and impartial advice to help people spot scams and protect themselves against fraud.
“Although banks are always looking out for suspicious activity, customers must be on their guard and protect themselves too. Always be wary of requests for money from someone you’ve never met in person. If you think you’ve been the victim of a romance scam, contact your bank immediately, report it to Action Fraud at actionfraud.police.uk or call us on 101.
“If you’ve been affected by romance fraud or know someone who has, then support is available from the West Mercia Victim Advice Line.
“The Victim Advice Line is a free and confidential service offering advice, practical help and emotional support to people affected by crime, regardless of whether it has been reported to the police.
“Support is available by telephone on 0800 9523000, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and through live chat on victimadviceline.org.uk.
He added: “We are committed to safeguarding vulnerable people and disrupting criminality that preys on victims and causing them significant financial losses. We work in collaboration with the City of London Police to investigate reports and develop intelligence leads to disrupt romance fraudsters, whilst also safeguarding, supporting and offering protection advice to the victims.”
Online security firm Techshielder carried out extensive analysis of “catfishing” incidents and romance fraud, and found more than £24.5 million had been lost by Brits to scammers in 2020. Lasse Walstad, the firm’s co-founder, said: “In today’s society, it’s normal to meet and build a relationship online, especially during a pandemic.
“If you are dating over the internet, looking for the one, it’s important to be on your toes so you can spot when something is wrong. There are people out there who will take advantage of those looking for love, thus before you fall for the whirlwind that is love or send any money, look out for any red flags.
“If it’s too good to be true, then it usually is.”