SITTING in her office, Samantha Cooper reads over the details of her latest case for the third time.
As she flicks through files of photographs, conversations and bank transactions, she looks for subtle clues that will help her identify the suspect.
But this case has no crime scene, no fingerprints and no DNA evidence.
Samantha is seeking to expose online dating scammers who take advantage of lonely singletons.
And with huge spikes in the use of dating apps in lockdown, she is expecting a surge in Covid con-artists in the coming months.
Samantha, 52, has uncovered dozens of fraudsters who have conned people out of money — and she even had to tell one woman her dream date was a convicted paedophile.
She says: “Online dating can be a lovely thing and it’s brought so many couples together.
“But scammers need to be eradicated.
“It’s something I’m very passionate about and that’s why I set up the business.”
Samantha came up with her business idea in her thirties as her own foray into online dating highlighted how many people were lying.
She says: “A few months after my marriage came to an end, I went to meet a guy I’d met online in a pub.
“I looked around for the man I’d seen in the photos and quickly realised that the person who had shown up looked nothing like the one I’d been messaging.
“People would use profile photos that were years old, they would lie about their height and marital status.
“I felt sad that people didn’t think they could be honest about themselves.”
Samantha married when she was 30 but was divorced by 35, leaving her to raise two children, aged three and five, alone.
“It hit me how vulnerable I was,” she says.
“I’d received a settlement after our divorce, I had a house, some money and I wanted to protect my children.
“I was going to have to be careful.
“The dating scene had changed.
“Nearly everyone was using apps or online dating sites.
“I was very selective about who I went out with.
“I had good computer skills and was smart enough to do a few basic online checks before meeting anyone.
“But I wondered if everyone was as careful as I was.
“It’s so easy for people to be taken advantage of.”
Samantha worked from home selling cosmetics when her children were young, but she dreamed of a more exciting career.
She says: “People would joke, ‘You’re always one step ahead, you should be a private investigator’.
“It was a fantasy at first but there was a part of me that knew it would be a job I’d love.
“When the kids were around 15 and 16, they were no longer so dependent on me.
“An old friend was a private investigator and he said I had the right mindset for the job.
“I paid a few hundred pounds to do a home study course in private investigation.
“For a few years, I assisted on jobs trying to get a feel for the work.”
By this point, Samantha had met Steve, 62, the director of an advertising company, who she has now been in a relationship with for 15 years.
Her business took off and then in 2017, a woman who had been working as a paralegal contacted Samantha with concerns about a man she had been dating.
Samantha says: “She said she’d met a wonderful guy — a lawyer who had set up a charity to raise funds after an earthquake in Haiti.
“He sounded like a dream come true.
“She did a bit of work for him, but when she asked to be paid, he ghosted her.
“A few searches revealed he hadn’t even given her his real name.
“He wasn’t a lawyer at all, didn’t own any charities and was bankrupt.
“It turned out he was an illegal immigrant and, worse still, a convicted a paedophile.
“It was incredibly hard to tell her the truth.
“This lady had a young daughter and he knew where they lived. It was heartbreaking.
“She thought she had a future with him and I had to bring her whole world crashing down around her.”
For Samantha, it was a wake-up call. It made her determined to help those being conned by people they had met on dating sites.
In 2018, her company Rogue Daters was formed.
She says: “One of my current clients is a woman in her fifties, all set to retire.
“She met a businessman online who told her he is from the UK but travelling abroad.
“They planned to meet up when he returned.
“After a few months of messaging, he told her he needed some money for a business deal and she lent him £45,000.
“He promised to pay her back when he got home but, of course, he never showed and the money never came.
“After a few checks, I discovered this ‘businessman’ doesn’t really exist and whoever it was pretending to be him is certainly not from the UK.
“He’s been reported to the police and a fraud investigation is ongoing.
“This lady felt a real sense of shame, which is very common among victims.
“People will say ‘They are so stupid, that would never happen to me’.
“But these scammers can be very, very sophisticated in their methods and often they target people at vulnerable times. She is certainly not alone.”
Figures from Action Fraud show that in 2018, £51million was lost in romance fraud and for 2019, that figure was even higher — £63.5million just in the ten months to the end of October.
So scams like this are on the rise.
Samantha explains: “Those most likely to be scammed are women over the age of 50, but it’s happening to everyone. Men and youngsters, too.
Samantha’s TOP TIPS for safe online dating
- Always show who it is you are connecting with to a family member or friend. They will give you an honest opinion with no emotion attached.
- Beware if someone gets very full-on, very quickly. Chat with them for as long as possible through the dating app chat platform. This way, you will be able to report the conversation if something does not seem right. Be wary if they quickly ask you to move to WhatsApp or Google Hangout. Slam on the brakes and if someone is genuine, they will understand. Scammers are less likely to wait around.
- Be cautious if anyone asks about your family set-up, whether you have children or if you live on your own. Only share information when you feel the time is right and trust has been established.
- Be wary of excuses not to have a video call. Often, people will say their phone is broken or they do not have a signal.
- Remember that photographs can be doctored. Things are not always as they appear to be.
- Look up your dater on social media. In the case of most scammers, their profile will only have been recently created.
- Do some basic Google checks. A lot of people do not do this but it may just throw up a bit of information or a red flag.
- Always trust your gut feelings. If there is the slightest niggle, explore it.
- Call Rogue Daters on 020 8150 6869 or see roguedaters.co.uk. Basic checks start at £49.
“I was approached by one lady whose elderly father was chatting with a woman online and sending money to her.
“The daughter just couldn’t make her dad see that it wasn’t right.
“When I looked into the woman, it was little surprise to find she wasn’t real.
“Often, family members approach me with worries as the person being scammed doesn’t want to believe it.”
Samantha warns that modern technology allows con artists to get access to your personal details often without us realising.
She says: “We ask for ID if someone comes to fix the washing machine, but scammers can often access all sorts of personal information without even stepping through the front door.
“Some dating websites have tried to be responsible.
“Many use a two-step verification, which means you have to upload a photograph and a live video of yourself to their sites.
“It helps, but really it only proves you look like you claim.
“These sites could do a lot more.”
Victims of online dating can find it hard to get help, as police are only interested if a crime has been committed.
“It’s hard for people to get help if they suspect someone is not genuine,” Samantha says.
“It’s often about money but it’s difficult to show wrongdoing if it has been transferred willingly, and sometimes people are just out to con people, without any financial gain.
“It’s not always possible to find out who someone is but what I say to clients is that we have to find out who they are not.
“For those targeted, it can be a real shock.
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“For months, they’ve been lied to and conned.
“People can find love online. I did.
“But people must be vigilant, stay safe and if they have any concerns, I’m here to help.”
‘So angry that I was taken in’
One 59-year-old divorced mother from Manchester, who wishes to remain anonymous, explains how she was targeted by an online dating scammer.
She says: “When my marriage came to an end in 2013, after 20 years, I was keen to meet someone new and I decided to try online dating.
I went on a few dates before finding someone I thought could be really special.
He was extremely charming and good-looking. He always asked how I was feeling and was very flattering about me, which really boosted my confidence.
He made me feel special, attractive and wanted – everything I’d been looking for.
He looked very fit and would send me photos of himself working out. I thought he was out of my league so I was flattered that he seemed interested in me.
He said he lived abroad and came from San Diego, in the US, but was currently working in Amsterdam.
When we first started messaging each other, he said he was flying to Canada to start a new business.
There would often be a delay in his replies to my messages but I put this down to the time difference between countries. Because he was abroad, we didn’t make immediate plans to meet up.
I guess there were a few red flags which gave me cause for concern.
We met on a Jewish website but he wasn’t Jewish. He said his friend suggested the site as it was the best place to meet “nice women”.
He wouldn’t talk much about his own marriage but said he’d been married for 22 years and had a daughter.
He just said he was too upset to discuss it, even though they’d been separated more than two years.
I had a few doubts, so I contacted Rogue Daters – and they confirmed what I think in my heart I already knew. He was a fraud. Everything he said was a lie.
The man in the photos was actually gay and I was shown pictures of him with his male partner. He hadn’t given me his real name and he wasn’t in Canada.
I was very angry and upset. How could a mature, independent woman have been taken in by someone like this?
I think it had just been nice to hear someone saying nice things about me, so I shared personal information about myself and my feelings. I’d started to open up.
Clearly he didn’t care about me at all and after hearing the truth, I felt stupid at first, then angry.
Once I knew, I ceased all contact with him. He never asked for money but I wonder if he was building up to that. Thank goodness I stopped it when I did.
Online dating is a risk. I didn’t meet up with anyone else for quite a while afterwards, as I didn’t want to be caught out again.
But a close friend encouraged me to give it another go and I have met someone quite special.”