One of the first rules we all had drilled into us as children was ‘don’t talk to strangers’, and especially ‘don’t talk to strangers online’.
But, in the modern world of online dating, that’s all but impossible.
Around a third (32 per cent) of relationships started between 2015 and 2019 began online, and this figure is set to jump to over 50 per cent by 2035, according to research from dating platform eharmony and the Imperial College Business School.
With so many couples meeting online, there are bound to be a few bad apples – i.e. catfishes looking to screw you over and rinse you of your cash – with people aged 45 to 54 most vulnerable to romance fraud.
READ MORE: ‘People on Tinder saw my kids as ‘baggage’ so I started a dating app just for single parents’
Private investigator Samantha Cooper, 53, lives in North West London and is the founder of Rogue Daters, which helps people who are potential victims of romance fraud by investigating online daters to ensure they are who they say they are.
“I save people from financial loss and heartbreak,” Samantha explained.
“I urge people to come to Rogue Daters before they’ve been scammed, rather than after, because once they’ve parted with money, it’s really, really hard to try and reclaim it.
“We encourage people to run early checks to know who they are connecting with online.”
The thing with catfishes and romance fraudsters is that they can be notoriously hard to spot – and anyone can become a victim.
Samantha says the main aim of Rogue Daters is to find out if the person someone has connected with is who they claim to be, and they assess the whole backstory of the relationship before investigating the individual.
She was inspired to start the business after her divorce led her to the world of online dating, finding that “people do tend to distort the truth, or completely blatantly lie.”
“I knew that in order to bring somebody into my life, and into the lives of my children, I needed to ensure that they were genuine,” she said.
Since she began Rogue Daters in 2018, Samantha has become an expert at spotting the ‘red flags’ that indicate a potential date may not be genuine.
The tough thing is that they’re not always easy to spot, and tend to take advantage of people’s kind natures.
“It could be somebody that has an elaborate story of their lifestyle,” Samantha explains.
“They travel a lot, they have a glamorous lifestyle, they may be a business person who has a commodity of high value like gold or diamonds, or they could be a professional doctor, army soldier, things like that.
“But then, very quickly, there’ll be a tragic sob story. A business transaction has gone wrong, or they’re held up in customs – it would be a very quick story that evolves.”
Samantha says that often a fraudster will become very invested, in order to get the other person invested.
They might be dominant with their texting, sometimes phone calls, “but very rarely video calls”.
“They’re trying to show you that they’re heavily invested,” she said.
“They’ve got a great imagination, but they’re very sophisticated.
“They’re very manipulative and will really hook you in and tell you what will happen if you don’t part with your money.
“And almost make you feel guilty that if you don’t part with it you’ll become complicit in the bad outcome.”
‘If things don’t add up, don’t ignore that’
Samantha advises anyone who dates online to run a few background checks on the person they’re talking to, just to make sure that everything’s as it should be.
Googling their name and running a reverse image search on their profile photo are two simple, non-invasive ways to see if everything adds up – and if things don’t, “don’t ignore that”.
“I find that what people tend to do is see a couple of things that don’t make sense, and then ignore it,” Samantha said.
“Speak to family and friends – they will give you an honest opinion. If they think something is wrong, unfortunately, a lot of the time it is.”
As an investigator, Samantha can do this “very unemotional, unbiased search” for people, and if necessary can dive a bit deeper into who they are – especially if criminal activity is apparent.
She warns that in some cases of romance fraud, it isn’t even a singular person that victims are chatting to – it can be a group of fraudsters, a man posing as a woman, a woman posing as a man, and/or an organised crime gang orchestrating the affair.
The key message is that it’s often not easy to tell, and the victims aren’t foolish, naive or stupid – “they’ve just let down their guard looking for love, companionship, romance.”
“They’re manipulated or get caught out in a moment of weakness. These victims are not stupid,” she said.
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Samantha says that she hopes more people remain diligent and come to her at the first sign that something might be wrong to prevent more heartache and financial loss.
Ultimately, though, while vigilance is key, it’s also important to remain hopeful and remember that there are plenty of decent people looking for love.
Samantha says: “Hopefully it [does] all add up, and that’s great. We do have to remember that there are still lovely, genuine people out there looking for love. Not everyone is bad.”
Find out more about Rogue Daters on the website, roguedaters.co.uk.
Have you been a victim of romance fraud and would like to tell your story? Get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org