True Romance? How criminals are exploiting lockdown loneliness
Last month, several media outlets reported the case of a woman in her 50s who signed up to an online dating site after her husband left her, only to be conned out of £63,000 by a scammer. Posing as a Royal Navy sailor in the Middle East with a sick daughter, ‘Lisa’ fell for the man in question, handing over her life savings before realising he was a fraudster.
This story is not an isolated example – but rather part of a growing trend this year in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. In an age where internet dating is an increasingly commonplace way to seek out human connection, the isolation of lockdown has seen so-called romance crimes rising faster than you can say swipe-right.
UK charity Action Fraud has recorded more than 600 reports of scams per month over the summer; clear evidence that criminals are exploiting the conditions of lockdown, which has seen large numbers of people look for new connections online.
It’s not just the traditional romance scam that has seen an increase: a government-funded helpline reports seeing a 22% increase in revenge porn cases, while Action Fraud received over 9,000 reports of sextortion in April (when the country was deep in lockdown) alone.
A common denominator
The reasons behind these crimes are varied and wide-ranging, yet one simple reason links the victims in most cases; loneliness. While the Covid-19 pandemic has swept through the country, a secondary pandemic of loneliness has, sadly, followed in its wake. One recent study by social media giant Snapchat revealed 68% of people report experiencing loneliness as a direct result of the pandemic.
As loneliness can render us more vulnerable than normal, the ongoing lockdown is likely to create even more victims – more people susceptible to emotional manipulation, and more people willing to let their guard down to maintain a relationship.
Men are from Mars; women are from Venus?
We may never understand exactly why some people fall victim to these crimes and not others – but gender does seem to play a part, especially in who is targeted. Evidence suggests there is some truth in the idea that men and women respond differently to online contact (particularly that which is unsolicited) – so a creative con artist will likely choose their approach based on gender lines.
Studies show that it’s women who most often fall prey to catfishing, (63% according to Action Fraud), while men are usually the victims of sextortion crimes.
Recent research by the charity Refuge also shows that two thirds of reported cases of so-called revenge porn involve action against women.
Know the scams and how to avoid them
‘Romance’ crimes can be dressed up in many guises – but the nuts and bolts behind them remain the same.
Victims of catfishing (when a victim is lured into a relationship by someone using a false online persona) are usually approached via platforms such as dating websites or Facebook, with the scammer quickly (and expertly) building a relationship until there is sufficient trust to manipulate the victim – usually by asking for money or gifts. To avoid getting caught up in this type of scam:
- never send money or gifts to someone you haven’t met in person
- stop communicating with the person if they ask you to provide money or other gifts
- talk to someone you trust, and listen if friends or family say they are concerned about your new relationship
- search for the type of job the person says they have and look for similar stories (e.g. search for “oil rig scammer” or “US Army scammer”)
- do a reverse image search of the person’s profile picture to see whether it’s associated with another name or with details that don’t match – these are signs of a scam
Victims of sextortion (where people are blackmailed with the threat of revealing evidence of their sexual activity) find themselves at the mercy of a blackmailer – usually as a result of their use of adult sites, dating websites, or other similar compromising information. Victims are often lured into sexual activity that is recording or screenshot – and then threatened with its release to their network. The approach may be different, but advice remains similar to any blackmail activity:
- stop communication
- be aware that scammers can be aggressive and threatening
- do not pay (or give them whatever they are asking for)
- capture as much information as possible and report it to the authorities
- speak to someone about what is happening – there is help available
These crimes can be extremely sophisticated, with organised teams of people, often working from another country. Police estimate that up to 70% of this kind of crime originates overseas.
For most victims of romance crimes, it is usually impossible to retrieve any money. But the more significant issue is often the emotional damage: something which is far harder to remedy and which sadly results in many victims keeping their ordeal secret – out of shame, and a fear of embarrassment.
Although current lockdown restrictions are not as severe as they were in March, reported cases are still high. They may well continue to be part of whatever ‘new normal’ lies ahead, so if you are meeting people online, vigilance is critical.
Stop and think: how much do I know about this person? Most important of all, be ready to stop communicating if someone you have not met in person asks you to send them money or other gifts.