Romance fraud carried out by organised criminal gangs is nearing an “industrial scale” with cutting-edge technology being used to swindle UK victims out of millions of pounds, police and fraud experts have warned.
Nearly 9,000 (8,989) victims of dating scams reported being targeted to police last year, according to data from the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau.
The victims lost an estimated £97.2m to fraudsters posing as looking for love online, the figures show.
The figures demonstrate a colossal rise in dating scams compared to 2020 when 648 reports were logged and £5.4m lost to fraudsters.
Experts blame the rise on people spending more time spent online during lockdown, more convincing scams and victims feeling more confident to report crimes.
Temporary detective inspector Dan Parkinson, of City of London Police which is the national lead force for fraud, said the shame and embarrassment people targeted by romance scams feel means the true numbers of victims could be far higher. He warned organised crime groups are preying on internet users on an “almost industrial scale.”
“We strongly believe romance fraud is massively underreported, even with all the rising figures I think we are genuinely looking at just the tip of the iceberg,” he told i.
“A lot of scammer approaches are now happening outside of dating sites and apps – on social media, poetry forums, even phoning wrong numbers and trying to engage someone in conversation. Anywhere you’re chatting with people online has the potential for criminals to start targeting people.”
Criminals are quickly adapting their predatory techniques in response to growing public awareness of dating scams as a result of increased media coverage and documentaries like Netflix’s newly-released The Tinder Swindler. This includes using AI-powered deepfake videos to convince a victim that the person they have met online is genuine and has a real connection with them,according to Lisa Mills, senior fraud manager at charity Victim Support.
“We’re beginning to see deepfake videos – quick snippets of clips doctored to look like the person they’re claiming to be saying ‘I love you so and so’ before their camera cuts out, it’s just another tool to convince they’re victims that everything’s okay,” she said.
“Unfortunately, it’s the fast-evolving crime of the moment and they’ve got it down pat.”
Such technology, which used to be confined to multi-million dollar films, is now cheap, relatively easy to take advantage of and can lure victims into a false sense of security, DI Parkinson explained.
“You don’t have to have a huge amount of expertise to do it and if criminals notice the amount of money they’re making is falling because victims are spotting certain techniques, they’ll find a way around it,” he said.
While many scams focus on tricking targets into sending offenders money, they’re increasingly being used to unwittingly launder vast sums between countries on behalf of international criminal networks under the guise of trust, he added.
“Controlling a network of people’s bank accounts is a very valuable asset for organised crime groups – the victim thinks the offender has trusted them with their money and also gives the impression they have lots of money, helping to groom the victim into believing that they’re real.”
‘I’m facing financial ruin’
When Rachel Elwell received a message from a handsome stranger on Facebook’s dating service on New Year’s Day 2021, she was thrilled.
Stephen, or Bario, as he preferred to be called, had raised his teenage daughter alone after his wife died seven years earlier, and he and Rachel quickly bonded over their shared interests: walking, dancing and travelling.
Unfortunately for Rachel, 51, Bario was a highly sophisticated scammer masquerading as the man of her dreams, operating within an organised crime network intent on scamming victims out of vast sums of money.
She is now facing having to repay £112,575 of savings and loans she transferred to him over the course of four months after he claimed he’d been sent to Ukraine as an engineer to work on a contract secured with the UK Government before being taken captive by local loan sharks.
“I can’t even begin to explain the impact it’s had on me,” she told i. “The minute I found out that I was a victim of fraud I felt relieved – thank god I’m no longer responsible for whether someone lived or died. My second was: oh my god, I’m facing financial ruin. I’ve planned suicide three times, I’m on antidepressants, I’m seeing a counsellor because I’m facing losing everything.
“The impact will stay with me forever. I’m not going to change and become some horrible, bitter, hard person because, to me, that’s not much of a life. But with regards to trust, that will always be an issue.
“Everyone keeps saying: ‘Never say never Rachel, there might be someone out there for you.’ But that’s the last thing on my mind. I’m trying to keep my life together, keep safe and move forward on my own. I’m trying to survive this crime.”