The dating game is full of the unexpected: it can quickly become apparent that photographs might have been in rotation for a few years or that someone listing their height as 5ft 10in could only achieve that height on tiptoes. But while those deceits may be forgivable if you hit it off with your date, at the other end of the spectrum are far worse cons.
In 2020, with more of us stuck at home, often desperate for some company or conversation, the number of romance scams reported to the crime body Action Fraud rose by 15%. Over the past 18 months it has received reports of more than 7,000 cases, with losses totalling £69.7m – an average of almost £10,000 a victim.
Romance scammers create what appears to be a genuine relationship that can go on for weeks or months. Once trust has been built, the fraudster will then ask for what are often large sums of money.
Another way that criminals extract money from unwitting daters is through sextortion scams. These involve acquiring intimate photos or videos of an individual, “nudes”, and using these to blackmail the victim. The National Crime Agency (NCA) says reports of sextortion scams soared in 2020, from 1,607 reports in 2019 to 2,881. In 2015, the number of cases reported was only 345.
The NCA says victims are often initially contacted through social media and dating websites. “Sadly, this a serious and organised crime that preys upon people’s emotions and vulnerability. While both men and women can be victims, our evidence suggests that men aged between 19 and 35 are predominately targets,” an NCA spokesperson says.
“The majority of sextortion crimes can be traced back to organised crime groups, mostly based overseas. For them, it’s a low-risk and easy way to make money but for victims, the impact and repercussions can be long-lasting. We know of at least four recent incidents in the UK where young men who were targeted saw no other way out than to take their own life.”
Dating apps are a common place for scammers to find their victims, with Action Fraud reporting that the top five platforms they use are Facebook, Plenty of Fish, Instagram, Tinder and Match.com.
In late 2020 the Match Group, which owns Plenty of Fish, Tinder, Match.com as well as OkCupid, ran a series of romance fraud protection adverts as part of a campaign with Action Fraud.
Justine Sacco from the Match Group told Guardian Money that the company had a dedicated team and “sophisticated technology” that patrols for spam and fraud including automated or manual reviews of each member profile to block IP addresses from high-alert countries, identify stolen credit card numbers and detect suspicious language in profiles.
“The Match Group brands instruct users to never send money to someone they met on our platforms, and to report any individual who asks that they do,” she says. “These steps are designed to stop scams in their tracks and help protect the next potential victim.”
Ryan Chen (not his real name), 23, was a user of the Chinese-owned dating app Tantan. He matched with a woman who appeared to live in Manchester, like him. She was about his age and attractive, so when she asked Chen for his Facebook and WeChat details, he happily shared them.
She asked to exchange “nudes” and, after receiving a video, Chen obliged, sending her a video in return. She didn’t reply for a few hours. He was then met with an unexpected response.
“She sent me a list of all my Facebook friends that she had downloaded somehow and she had worked out who my cousins were,” he says. “She wanted me to send her $4,000 to a Western Union account in the Philippines or she would send all my Facebook friends the video.”
After reading about other cases where victims had feared losing their jobs and families, he says he realised “worse case for me was just lots of people seeing my nudes. I found some advice on the National Crime Agency website and followed that. I was up all night panicking but that calmed me down.”
Chen contacted the police but was not able to provide much information about the culprit. He also contacted his cousins to warn them that they might receive a message from the scammer.
After three months of messages repeating the threat, he called her bluff and told her to go through with it. “That was the last time I heard from her.”
The National Crime Agency told Guardian Money it has a strategy in place to deal with these kind of crimes. “Sextortion is a borderless crime, and so demands a transnational, joined-up response,” it says. “The National Crime Agency is in constant dialogue with international law enforcement partners on how best to tackle the issue, protect victims and hold perpetrators to account.
“During the past year we’ve seen increased reporting by members of the public to UK police forces, with suggestions that this is due to increased confidence in the police to deal with allegations in a sensitive and confidential manner.”
The National Crime Agency has the following advice for anyone who has been contacted by someone threatening to distribute pictures or videos that they have shared:
Don’t panic: the first big step is to recognise you are the victim in this and that you may require support to help you through what has happened.
Don’t pay: the choice to pay is yours but experience shows that where victims have paid up, there is no guarantee that offenders will not still post the recording. They are, in fact, more likely to come back with further demands.
Don’t keep communicating: by replying to these threats, it indicates to the criminals that you are someone who may be persuaded to pay their ransom.
Do consider getting support: you can contact your local police force (101) to report what has happened to you. This is particularly important if you are struggling to cope with the problem. If you are under 18, consider speaking to a trusted adult, and additional support is also available via Child Exploitation and Online Protection command.
In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.