On the eve of Valentine’s Day, Britain’s men are being warned about the dangers of so-called “romance scams”.
Royal Bank of Scotland said in every month last year it saw on average nine cases of fraud in which, mostly, single men aged over 50 were duped into giving away tens of thousands of pounds in return for the promise of love. In almost half of the 103 cases recorded by the leading bank last year, victims were swindled out of an average of £14,000 each.
Laura Harris, one of six staff employed by RBS subsidiary NatWest to help victims and alert branch staff to the dangers of fraud, said she had 260 open cases and had stopped £13m being paid since June, when she began looking after fraud victims in London and south-east England.
One NatWest customer gave away his life savings of £50,000 to help his “girlfriend” who told him she needed the money to save her business buying and selling gold and to prevent her home from being repossessed.
Another, a Londoner named Peter in his 70s whose wife was in a care home, began making small transfers — “a couple of hundred pounds here and there” — to an account in Nigeria. Hundreds became thousands.
Ms Harris was alerted to the scam by branch staff. She intervened, froze the payments and called in the victim to the branch.
“He kept saying ‘This is the last time I am going to send money’,” Ms Harris said. “He admitted he had met someone online and that the person was his girlfriend. They hadn’t met but they talked regularly on the phone and he was helping her set up a business.”
Fraud — particularly online — continued to gain ground on other forms of crime last year.
A report to be published on Monday by accountancy firm BDO, which tracks cases of publicly disclosed fraud of more than £50,000, will show that the cost to companies and individuals reached £1.5bn in 2015. The research says fraud against the elderly and vulnerable has risen in every year since 2012 to reach £277m in 2015.
David Modic, a professor at Cambridge university who studies the psychology of fraud, said interventions in customers’ accounts might not be enough.
“They need better risk assessments of when joint accounts are opened or when people are added to an account,” he said. “The endgame can be very severe. In the worst cases, victims can give over power of attorney.”
Many of the victims were vulnerable, often lonely and estranged from members of their family. They were groomed for as long as six months, although many started making payments after a couple of months, said Ms Harris. Just before the scam reached its climax, victims would visit the bank to make one final big payment.
“They come in quite frantically — they need to do it urgently; they need to send the help urgently,” said Ms Harris. “They get so involved, the person they care about is in trouble and they want to help.”
Fraudsters “will play with your emotions and hook you into an emotional entrapment where they become your companion — they may be the only person that you speak to for a week”, she said.
The typical victim of a romance scam was befriended online, either through a dating website or after replying to an unsolicited email — almost always from outside the UK. While single men aged over 50 were the most vulnerable group, women also fell victim to scams. However, Ms Harris said women were less likely to part with money but instead get duped into money laundering through their own bank accounts.
A study in 2012 by Professor Monica Whitty of the University of Leicester estimated that as many as 230,000 people had fallen victim to a romance scam. RBS said that many victims did not report the crimes because they often did not realise that they were being exploited. In other cases they felt too embarrassed to admit they had been conned and in some instances the victims — while accepting their position — valued the “friendship” so much that they were prepared to keep handing over money.