There were pills in my lap, ready to take. Tears were streaming down my face. The summer sunshine was warm on my back, beaming into my living room but I could only see black as I stared ahead. I’d just realised that I’d been scammed, and I’d lost everything. I was shaking from head to toe, I was losing my vision and my body was going into shock. I ran to the bathroom and vomited. But the real trauma came days, weeks and months later – knowing I’d been manipulated by someone I thought I knew and cared about.
According to Action Fraud, £68 million was stolen in ‘romance scams’ in 2020. The isolation, loneliness and fear that the pandemic has created is the perfect environment for cybercriminals to operate in, and scams of this kind have increased by 20 per cent during the health crisis. I’m one in the not-so-exclusive group of romance scam victims.
My scammer and I met on a dating app in the summer of 2019. He hadn’t intrigued me much initially, but when I was sat at home on my own, shielding for health reasons, totally isolated for three months during the pandemic, his kind and caring texts were a breath of fresh air and brightened up my day.
Before I was scammed, I considered myself pretty Internet savvy. This man and I had talked online for weeks before I felt comfortable giving him my mobile number, and I’d done my homework. I reverse image-searched all of his photos – this allows you to see if photos are bogus or can be found elsewhere, perhaps on reports claiming abuse or scamming. It should quickly identify a catfish. Or so I thought.
I can’t count the hours we must have chatted. I was keen to meet him, but when I first suggested it he said he was away with work. By the time he returned, the UK was in lockdown. He now had the perfect excuse to not see me for another three months. But we texted daily, spoke on the phone and Skyped regularly too. We discussed normal things, he was kind and considerate, funny even. I thought I knew him. I thought he was real. He was acting for months. It was almost a year before I learned the truth.
He said he was an account manager for a Bitcoin trading company and after a while, in what seemed like an off-the-cuff comment, he offered me the chance to invest. I’m a small business owner and he knew I had lost my work and clients during the pandemic and needed a source of income fast. It seemed like a kind offer from someone who was trying to help.
I researched ‘his’ company; they are a big global player in the cryptocurrency world. The deal was simple, looking back it was too easy. If I paid in money, I would get a weekly payout of 10 per cent.
I took a chance with a small amount of money. I started off with a £100 investment to test the water, and I did receive a weekly bonus. Because of this, I invested another £2,000; this was a large amount of money for me, which made me nervous, but every time I worried, I’d get confirmation I’d make a good investment with a 10 per cent bonus in my bank account. It couldn’t have come at a better time; this small injection of cash could be enough to see me through the pandemic, I thought.
Over time, he convinced me to send even more money. I sent an additional £9,000. It was everything I had. Before I’d seen the weekly return, he concocted a fraud story and said we were both in trouble and I had to do something or we could go to jail, he asked for more money to pay our way out of it. He asked me to remortgage my flat. The penny dropped. Once I realised, it was too late, my money was long gone.
I played along for a couple of days, pretending that I was attempting to secure more money. I tried to get as much information from him as I could in this time, but it was emotionally draining. I called UK’s Action Fraud. The woman I spoke to said it was the most complex and well-thought-out romance scam she’d ever seen in her 20 years working in fraud.
I had to complete a police crime report online and once again repeated my story; an automated response said that if the police were going to look into it, I’d hear from them within 30 days. That was six months ago. Nothing. Not even a letter to say “sorry to hear you’ve been a victim of a crime”. I was warned by the Action Fraud representative that £11,000 to the police is a small amount of money, so the chances of them investigating are very slim.
I also contacted the company my scammer said he worked for. It was based in New York, the CEO put me in touch with their cybersecurity team and the New York Police Department. I was shown more concern by those in New York than here in Britain. They were keen to liaise with the British police to investigate – it was embarrassing to have to point out that no one here was doing anything to help.
Cryptocurrency can’t be traced, so this cyber-criminal has got away with it. And he could be scamming another victim right now. I have been in touch with every platform and app that we made contact through: Hinge, Skype, WhatsApp, Microsoft, LinkedIn. Everyone one of them is bound by data-protection laws. Some of his profiles are still active. I have been warned by professionals that I will likely be contacted again by a fraudster pretending to be a crime agency that has tracked down my scammer. They’ll know what I paid him and will try to scam me again, asking for my bank details to make “refund payments”. Since it happened, I consistently get notifications of attempts to access my social media and emails. My security is as good as it can get, but it’s a constant reminder that I messed up.
I’m currently in talks with the Financial Ombudsman, who is researching how I can retrieve my money, there are possibilities, but I won’t know for some time. And as the pandemic draws on, my financial situation is becoming harder.
I had counselling after the scam happened, to enable me to cope with the trauma this has caused. If I talk about it for too long my body reacts, my visions goes, I shake from head to toe and I’m physically sick.
People don’t search for information on scamming until they realise they are being scammed. I hadn’t even heard of the phrase ‘romance scam’. If I’d looked into it – I would have spotted the signs immediately.
If we hadn’t been in the middle of a pandemic, if my business hadn’t been struggling, if I hadn’t been lonely and isolated, would this have happened?
I’m not looking for sympathy, I’ve only told a couple of close friends because I’m so embarrassed. I can’t shake the feeling that this is my fault. But by writing this, I hope, I will save someone else the pain I’m going through.
*The author’s name has been changed to protect her identity. If you have been affected by this article, you can contact the following organisations for support: