The Metropolitan police has called for victims of online dating fraud to come forward and identify scammers as concern grows about the scale of the problem, with women typically being duped out of nearly £50,000.
Fraud officers are investigating 30 cases where people looking for partners have been scammed, often pawning jewellery and taking out loans as a result of the elaborate hoaxes.
This week Robinson Agbonifoayetan, 32, from Welling in south-east London, was sentenced to three years in prison after he took part in a fraud where two women were convinced that a general in the US marines had fallen in love with them and parted with almost £300,000.
In a separate case, three men have been arrested and charged in relation to a scam where a total of £1.6m was taken from a number of victims.
Speaking to the Guardian, Detective Chief Inspector Gary Miles of the Metropolitan police’s Falcon unit, which deals with fraud and cybercrime, said that while the number of romance scams they are investigating is fewer than other internet-based hoaxes, the financial losses which people suffer are far greater.
In a typical scam, the fraudster identifies potential victims through a dating site. He then tailors his personality to suit what the victim is looking for, for example a man in the army, and then finds a picture of someone in the military from the internet, which he will use in his profile. Compliments are usually offered and questions asked of the woman so that the fraudster can ascertain how much money the woman has and whether the scam is worth pursuing. In the vast majority of cases it is women who are the victims, although there has the been the occasional male.
The fraudster will aim to take the person offline, to coax them away from the confines of the dating site and continue the relationship via Skype or email. This is an attempt to isolate the victim, he said, and contact will go from a couple of messages a day to constant emailing.
In many cases, the scammer will say he is working abroad and wants to meet the victim. But there will be something stopping him, such as a hospital visit.
The convicted fraudster Agbonifoayetan posed as a diplomat called Christopher Williams and used a forged United Nations diplomatic card to collect money from two women who had been persuaded that a marine called General James Krulak (in one case) and General James Raul (in the other) wanted to move to the UK and marry them.
Miles says that after coaxing the victims offline, the typical fraudster will ask for money after a couple of weeks, initially for small amounts. He may say he expects to come to the UK in the coming weeks but plans will be interrupted for some reason – such as a hospital bill being more than expected – and more money will be requested.
Identifying women who have the money to make the fraud worthwhile is the result of an elaborate series of questions designed to elicit the key financial information. In some cases, the victims may be unknowingly talking to more than one person and being asked a set list of questions. “The social engineering is quite remarkable,” Miles says. “These people are very good at recognising opportunities.”
Victims are typically women aged from their mid-40s to mid-60s and looking for companionship. Notable among the scammers’ tactics is claiming to be looking for a permanent relationship, not a short-term affair. Their operation can be a large-scale skimming exercise, trying the same fraud on 20 or 30 people at any one time in the hope of securing a victim.
The money, when transferred, sometimes goes through UK or US bank accounts – in order to give the scheme some credibility – but frequently ends up in west African countries including Ghana and Nigeria, Miles says. Some of the scammers operate in the UK and they are highly organised, with many people working together, although there is no evidence of a single overall structure behind the scams, Miles says.
Among the problems the police face in identifying the fraudsters is the stigma attached to falling for such a scheme. People typically do not believe that they are being scammed, Miles says. In one case, a person who reported a scam told the fraudster she had complained to the police only to then try to withdraw the complaint after being talked down by the fraudster.
How do otherwise intelligent people fall for these scams?
Victims, says Miles, are not stupid and may be working in professional jobs. In the Agbonifoayetan case, the two victims were led to believe that they had formed a relationship with an American soldier and that he needed help in transferring his $8.5m retirement fund from Greece. He asked them to pay the transfer fees saying they would be reimbursed.
Agbonifoayetan and another suspect met the women a number of times to collect the funds. A woman in her 60s from Ealing, in London, paid around £260,000 over six months after she was contacted by “General Krulak” via Skype. She used up her life savings, pawned jewellery, sold her car and took out loans to pay the costs, which were transferred into accounts in Ghana. Another woman, in her 50s from Devon, was duped by “General Raul” under the same scheme and paid £22,000. Police are now seeking a compensation order to recoup some of the money.
Five things that tell you he’s a scammer
He’ll ask lots of questions. And you will be showered with compliments.
Little is offered in terms of their own personal information apart possibly from some tragic details like the death of a (fictional) child.
Going offline. The fraudster will typically try to coax you offline away from the security of dating sites so they can isolate you.
Asking for money. Some weeks after initiating contact, they will ask for money – possibly for an operation or some administration.
Never making it over. They may say they they are on the cusp of visiting but something always gets in the way.
Why you are a target
You are a single female aged 45-65, with the money to make the scam worthwhile.
You agree to go offline and chat to them further.
You are looking for a long-term relationship.
You are looking for someone who they can fake a profile to, eg, a soldier.
You are trusting, sympathetic and receptive to sob stories – and more likely to hand over your cash.
Don’t get conned
Don’t chat offline and use the website which you have paid money for.
Search the web for photos of the person you are talking to.
If someone asks for money, question them. If it is for a medical procedure, what hospital is the operation taking place in? Who is the doctor?
Talk to people. Tell others that you are talking to someone online. Tell them if you are asked for money.