UK victims of online romance fraud were conned out of more than £63m over the past year, according to figures obtained exclusively by Sky News.
Action Fraud, run by the City of London Police, says 800 more cases were reported in 2020 than the previous year.
Alex Rothwell, interim Detective Chief Superintendent, City of London Police, said: “Scammers typically assume a persona of strength and dependability – so they’ll say that they are things like a doctor, or in the military serving overseas.
“And of course in this past year, where the pandemic has made it genuinely harder to meet people in person, that may have been exploited by scammers to manipulate victims, who are more isolated, vulnerable and spending more time online.”
Online romance fraud can include cat-fishing, where a scammer uses a fake profile to woo a victim before asking them for money.
Victims can also be asked to “hold” money for their scammer, which is often stolen.
Sky News has discovered that scammers are operating on mainstream dating sites, before moving their victims onto other social media chat platforms.
Penny Ward and Elizabeth, whose name we have changed, were both conned by a scammer on dating app Tinder.
The individual used the same photos and back story to woo the women at around the same time this year.
Ms Ward told Sky News, “I’d been single three years and my brother signed me up for Tinder.
“And after a week, (the scammer) got in touch.”
“He told me he had lived in Liverpool for 12 years, but had just moved out to South Africa and bought a farm.
“He asked me if we wanted to chat over WhatsApp, and meet up when he got back home in March.”
Both women said they quickly fell in love, after being inundated with hundreds of loving, caring messages.
“He was just so lovely. Just so kind,” Elizabeth said, “and before you know it, you sort of become addicted to being cared for. I was lonely, I suppose.”
The scammer sent both women photographs and videos that he said were of himself, his workers, his farm, even his dog.
But neither of them ever spoke with him over live video chat.
“I never questioned it,” Elizabeth said. “And whenever I did, he just always said the right thing to make any concerns go away.”
After about two months, the scammer asked both women for money.
Penny, who quickly realised she was being scammed but said she “felt desperate not to lose him”, sent around £500.
But Elizabeth lost a staggering £30,000.
“He said he needed it to keep the farm going, to pay workers’ salaries, to send a worker home to attend a funeral – another time it was because he had appendicitis and it was for hospital bills.”
Eventually, Elizabeth used up all her savings.
“Once he realised I didn’t have anymore money, his messages stopped,” she said. “He just disappeared.
“And you just feel like such an idiot. The story, the photos – all just lies. And afterwards everything seems too obvious.
“I’m too ashamed to tell anyone I know, even too ashamed to tell the police. I’m borderline now whether I lose my house or not.”
More than one in 10 people have been the victim of a romance scam, according to a survey by insurance company Aviva. The findings, shared exclusively with Sky News, found just over a third (34%) of the 3,000 people polled had been targeted since March this year.
The data also showed that almost two-thirds of victims (62%) were too embarrassed to admit it to their friends and family or the authorities.
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A spokesperson for Tinder said: “We are saddened to hear of anyone who has fallen victim to a romance scam when seeking a real connection.
“We have a zero-tolerance policy on this type of behaviour and are constantly monitoring our platform to detect and remove any suspicious profiles.”
They added: “We encourage our members to look for the ‘blue tick’, which indicates that the member’s profile image is genuine and has been verified by Tinder, through our photo verification programme.”