Romance scammers swindled lonely hearts in Cumbria out of more than £650,000 in less than a year – and most of them will never be caught.
Not only are victims losing their life savings, but many are also losing trust in others after falling prey to fraudsters, police say.
Callous thieves and con artists stole an average of around £66,000 a month in ‘romance scams’ between January and November last year.
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And despite the efforts of investigators, the vast majority of heartless ‘Tinder swindlers’ will evade justice – because most scams are traced to countries where UK police forces have no jurisdiction.
The impact of this kind of offending is often life-changing, with some victims “plunged into poverty” and left with nothing after their encounter with online scammers.
DI Andy Myers from Cumbria Constabulary’s Cyber and Digital Crime Unit said: “Offenders like this hide behind screens pretending to be someone else.
“They prey on loneliness and on the emotions of people who are looking for love and affection – it is so sad.”
In most cases, victims will never meet their so-called suitors but will instead be lured into believing they are in a remote relationship.
Often using photographs of someone else, offenders frequently contact their victims via social media or legitimate online dating platforms.
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An early red flag to watch out for, says DI Myers, is when a new online contact asks to move the conversation to an encrypted chat service, such as WhatsApp, where conversations cannot be tracked.
DI Andy Myers
He said: “These crimes do not happen overnight, these people will talk to victims for months, manipulating them and gaining their trust without ever actually meeting them.
“Then they’ll begin to ask for money for various reasons, or try to persuade them to invest in cryptocurrency like BitCoin, which is common as it’s difficult to trace.
“Often, once that money is gone, it’s gone – it’s very difficult for us to recover and we do see people left with nothing as a result.”
In Cumbria, around half of the victims recorded last year were aged over 55, with 13 people aged between 55 and 64 shouldering the biggest financial loss per age group at around £359,000.
DI Myers said: “Some might question how people fall for a scam but we all know what it’s like to feel in love.
“Romance scams are a particularly effective model as they’re targeting vulnerable people who are looking for companionship and love
“The victim often totally believes in the relationship and the impact can totally devastate them.
“Not only have they lost their life savings, but they’ve lost their trust in others and they can feel ashamed and sometimes feel stupid.”
Friends and family are urged to open their eyes and ears to the signs of loved ones becoming embroiled in romance scams.
“This could happen to your own mother, and you can play a part in preventing it,” said DI Myers.
“Where someone’s talking about a new relationship, probe that a bit, ask questions.
“And if you have concerns, it doesn’t have to be a victim that reports this kind of crime, friends and family can too.”
He added: “I don’t want to put anyone off online relationships, 99 per cent of people are good and some do successfully meet partners online.
“But never send money to someone you haven’t met and don’t give them any personal details, like your ID.
“If you’re asked to send money and you have any doubts, speak to someone.”
DI Myers also recommends using reverse image tools – such as Google Lens – to help verify whether the person you are speaking to is who they claim to be.