The British banking industry is warning online dating site users over the risks of being sucked into a scam this Valentine’s Day as the number of so-called “romance scams” explodes.
More than half of those who use online dating services are leaving themselves vulnerable to being scammed, according to the banking and finance association UK Finance, by trusting that the person they are in contact with is being honest about who they are before meeting in real life.
The number of romance scams – which involve criminals persuading victims to make a payment to them after meeting online and convincing them they are in a relationship – rose 64 per cent in the first half of 2019 compared with the previous year.
One in five people using online dating services say they have their been asked for money or have given money to someone they met online.
Men are more likely than women to be asked for money, with a typical £321 requested or handed over. But some people are being asked for far larger sums.
In May 2019, for example, Thomas, a 34-year-old from the west midlands, received a message request on social media from someone claiming to be a young woman called Tonia. Originally from Ireland, Tonia had lost both her parents at a young age and was currently living with her grandmother in Indianapolis, US. Over several weeks they spoke frequently about the different countries they’d been to and their pet dogs.
Tonia then revealed that her grandmother had stomach cancer and was struggling to buy food due to the expensive medical bills. She said if Thomas could transfer $100 to her it would really help her out. She didn’t have a bank account so asked Thomas to do an online money transfer to her friend’s account. She asked Thomas for some personal details such as his address, phone number and email address.
She had previously told Thomas she was due to come into a large inheritance from her late father and sent him a copy of a will stating she would inherit $1.5m as well as her father’s oil and gas company and family home in Texas. Tonia used the personal information Thomas had given her previously to apply online for two loans in his name with two different pay day loan companies.
The money – a total of £14,000 – was then transferred into his account.Tonia explained that it was part of the inheritance and she needed him to distribute it to several accounts as she didn’t have a bank account.
When Thomas received letters from the loan companies he realised he had been scammed. His bank, HSBC, was able to identify the payments and issue a refund. He is now working on repairing his credit rating.
But not all victims are so lucky.
UK Finance calculations suggest that £7.9m was lost to romance scams in the first half of 2019, an increase of 50 per cent on the previous year.
“Romance scams are both emotionally and financially damaging for victims,” says Katy Worobec, managing director of economic crime at UK Finance.
“The popularity of online dating services has made it easier for criminals to target victims, so we urge everyone to be cautious this Valentine’s.”
More than a quarter of dating site users have been catfished in the past 12 months, a scam where someone using the site or app adopts a fake persona or picture.
“Although banks are always looking out for suspicious activity, customers must be on their guard and protect themselves too,” says Worobec. ”Always be wary of requests for money from anyone you’ve never met in person. If you think you’ve been the victim of a romance scam, contact your bank immediately.”
The majority of people using online dating do their research before meeting in real life. Two-thirds exchange text or WhatsApp messages with the other person before meeting, while over half do a social media search. Half speak to the other person on the phone, and one in five search for the other person online before meeting.
How to avoid romance scams
Those looking for love online this Valentine’s day, or any other day, are being urged to be suspicious of any requests for money from someone you have never met in person, regardless of how plausible the story seems, and particularly if you have only recently met online.
Profile photos may not be genuine, do your research first. And don’t be bashful. Speak to your family or friends to get advice if you’re asked for money, no matter how innocuous the circumstances or amount.
If you think you may have fallen victim to a romance scam, contact your bank or building society immediately for help. The sooner you inform them, the better the chances of resolution.