Romance scams: Steven Kelly’s pictures were stolen from social media
The soldier in the picture has blue eyes, broad shoulders and a sharp jaw-line. On his social media profile, he describes himself as a ‘proud Army dad’.
But the handsome ‘Anderson Woods’ is a fake. The man in the photograph is, in fact, Steven Kelly, a British father whose face has been used by scammers to dupe love-struck victims out of more than £1 million. His pictures have been used on hundreds of social media and dating website profiles over the past two years. And it has even led to strangers making threats on his life.
Netflix’s latest hit documentary, The Tinder Swindler, tells the tale of a conman who posed as the son of a billionaire diamond mogul on dating apps. Shimon Hayut, also known as Simon Leviev then tricked his victims out of millions of pounds by convincing them to send money under false pretences.
But this high-profile tale is just the tip of the iceberg. Around £15.1 million was stolen by romance fraudsters in the first half of 2021, according to trade body UK Finance — a 91 per cent increase on the same period in 2019. Victims lost an average of £6,100 each.
As well as dating apps, the crooks prowl social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter. They often target the vulnerable, such as widows. During the pandemic, they preyed on those who felt lonely in lockdown.
And as in Steven’s case, many use photographs of real people to lure in victims.
The 35-year-old is in the Army and runs a business offering survival courses in Plymouth, Devon.
He has a girlfriend, Jenny Pearce, 37, and a 13-year-old daughter called Chloe.
But since September 2019, he has been inundated with online messages from strangers who believe they are in a relationship with him.
It all began when a friend’s girlfriend told him she had received a message from someone using his photographs on the social media site Instagram. The pictures had been taken from social media profiles used to promote his business South West Survival.
The mystery account holder claimed to be a soldier fighting in Syria.
A few weeks later, Steven received a message from a German widow in her 50s who said she had paid someone posing as him £3,000 for his daughter’s cancer treatment.
Soldier: Steven, 35, is in the Army and runs a business offering survival courses in Plymouth, Devo
Steven says: ‘I felt sorry for her. She was just looking for a man and someone took advantage of her.’
Desperate to stop more victims losing money, Steven alerted Action Fraud, the national reporting centre for fraud overseen by City of London Police.
But it dropped his case because he had not lost any money and identity theft was ‘not a police recordable crime’. It wasn’t long though, before Steven was receiving up to five messages a day from victims all over the world.
Some fake accounts had used his real name, making him easier to track down.
Other victims uploaded his image onto Google, which allows them to see where else it appears online.
The majority of victims were widows or divorcees in their 50s and 60s. Those aged between 45 and 54 are most likely to be conned by romance fraudsters, according to Lloyds Bank.
Based on the messages he has received, Steven estimates that his photos have been used to steal at least £1 million.
Many women were asked to pay for urgent medical treatment. Others were asked for cash to cover emergency flights home.
In some cases, the victims had been talking to the scammer for a year before they realised the truth.
Steven says: ‘One woman was convinced we were getting married — some of them are so upset, they refuse to believe it’s not you.’
The majority of victims were widows or divorcees in their 50s and 60s. Those aged between 45 and 54 are most likely to be conned by romance fraudsters, according to Lloyds Bank
He now sends a near-automated response to victims asking them to report fake profiles to the website concerned and any lost money to the police.
However, Steven says TikTok, a Chinese social media platform, has failed to take down a single account reported.
And Money Mail found an active profile with more than 1,000 followers still using his pictures.
He found Facebook and Instagram are better at removing scam accounts, but even then, new ones quickly replace them.
Ruth Grover, 65, of ScamHaters United, which helps victims report fake online profiles, says crooks often use photographs of soldiers as the uniform demands respect and it means they have an excuse to explain why they cannot meet in person or are not in frequent communication.
After two years, Steven is losing patience and he now blocks victims as conversations can turn sinister.
One woman told him a group of young men would beat him up with baseball bats, and another victim’s son threatened to shoot him.
His girlfriend Jenny is also frequently targeted by furious women who believed Steven was their partner.
Steven says: ‘Many of these scammers are using pictures of my daughter Chloe and me camping, which is horrible.’
At the end of this month, MPs will debate new rules forcing social media websites to introduce strict identity checks.
But for now all Steven can do is warn his own social media followers about the scammers. He says: ‘It’s horrendous, I worry about my business and my family — it’s affected my whole life and I just don’t know when it will end.’
TikTok removed several accounts which impersonated Steven after Money Mail brought them to its attention.
Facebook also blocked an account using his photos and an Instagram page was taken down.
The sites say they do not allow accounts that impersonate another person.
An Action Fraud spokesman says: ‘The Home Office sets out the circumstances under which we can record a crime and there are in excess of 56 different types of fraud and cyber codes that we use.’
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