UK police have warned that the period between Christmas Day and Valentine’s Day is the most dangerous for users of dating sites as scammers are out in force.
Many fraudsters seek to establish contact and build a rapport with their victims during this time, leading to a spike in reports of romance scams and financial loss in the weeks and months after, said Action Fraud.
Those losses soared from £8.7m last March to £14.6m in May as a result, according to figures from the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau (NFIB).
Total financial losses from romance fraud over the year (November 2020 to October 2021) stood at a staggering £92m. That’s based on 8,863 cases that were reported to the NFIB, up from 6,968 in the 2020 calendar year.
However, this is likely to be an under-estimate since many victims feel too ashamed to get the police involved.
A plurality of victims (20%) over the reporting period were aged 50-59, and half were wome. Two-fifths (39%) were men, and 11% did not record their gender.
Police are asking relatives of online daters to protect family members from being scammed by flagging the warning signs.
“Typically, romance fraudsters will spend weeks gaining their victims’ trust, feeding them fabricated stories about who they are and their lives – and initially make no suggestion of any desire to ask for any money, so the victim may believe their new love interest is genuine,” explained detective chief superintendent Matt Bradford, from the City of London Police.
“But weeks, or sometimes months later, these criminals will ask for money for a variety of emotive reasons, and as the emotional relationship has already been formed, victims often transfer money without a second thought.”
Typical excuses designed to elicit money include paying for travel to visit the victim, emergency medical expenses, or investment opportunities.
Some scammers might also try to trick their victims into opening bank accounts in their name, making them unwitting money mules.
“It is essential users educate themselves on how to be a smart online dater, and to be aware of the actions fraudsters will use to manipulate them. Daters should check in with trusted family and friends during their online dating journey to share experience, and friends and family can watch for any change in behavior,” argued Hannah Shimko, policy director at the Online Dating Association.
“Other healthy online dating advice includes staying on the dating platform which has processes in place to protect users; getting to know the person, not just the profile; and never disclosing personal information until the dater is ready. Finally, remember to never send money to someone met only online.”
Romance scams were the second highest-grossing cybercrime type reported to the FBI in 2020, accounting for over $600m in losses.