Cyber con artists targeting dating websites are defrauding Britons of at least £34m a year by exploiting growing use of online matchmaking to extract money under a pretence of romance, the i can reveal.
The number of cases of so-called romance fraud across the UK rose by more than a fifth last year to more than 3,100 with victims losing on average £11,000, according to figures obtained by the i and Johnston Press investigations
Online dating worth £2bn worldwide
The total amount stolen from this particularly cruel form of fraud rose by a third last year to £34.4m, making it a lucrative area for online fraudsters as increasing numbers of Britons turn to the internet to find love. Action Fraud, the UK’s national cyber crime reporting centre, said the number of cases of dating fraud rose from 2,561 in the financial year to March 2016 to 3,127 to April 2017.
As taboos around online dating have fallen away, the industry has grown to global revenues of £2bn a year. It is estimated that a quarter of all new relationships in the UK now start via dating sites.
But police warn that the dramatic growth is attracting cyber criminals who are prepared to spend weeks or months at a time posing as an individual’s dream match, researching their target online to find common interests before winning enough trust to request money in increasing quantities.
The results can be devastating for victims, who range from young professionals leading busy lives to widows and widowers looking for a new companion, as the financial cost is exacerbated by the emotional burden of discovering that a potential life partner is in reality a patient and callous con artist.
Detective Chief Inspector Andrew Fyfe, head of crime at the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau, told Johnston Press Investigations: “People who are taken in by romance fraud are usually the most vulnerable and badly affected victims of fraud.
“Many of these people are lonely and desperate for romance and companionship, only to find themselves completely fleeced. Some of them are strung along and wooed for a year or more by someone who is effectively grooming them.
“It does not matter what profession you are in or what stage of life you are at, you can become a victim of dating fraud.”
Average victim age 49
According to Action Fraud figures, the average age of dating fraud victims is 49 and the gender breakdown of reported cases is 61 per cent female against 39 per cent male. Police believe men are just as likely as women to fall victim but are more reluctant to approach the authorities because of a stigma of feeling fooled or conned.
The con artists can work alone or increasingly as part of a wider network, targeting multiple individuals from abroad while using contacts in Britain to stage face-to-face meetings and others to provide bank accounts to receive funds which are then transferred out of the country. The average amount of time between an online meeting and the first request for money is 30 days.
While the fraudsters often first meet their target on an online dating site, they will normally quickly seek to take communications to a more direct and personal forum, according to investigators.
Det Ch Insp Fyfe said: “They move away from the dating website quite quickly as they want to start communicating in a more personal way such as text messages, WhatsApp, Facebook and emails. That’s when the fraudster really starts and it opens up different levels of fraud.”
A convicted romance fraudster told i that the conmen exploit information available on social media and elsewhere on the internet to build a plausible story and connect with their target.
The man said he had used an online mapping site to “drive” down the road where his victim lived and tell her details he pretended to remember from visiting the same road as a child to begin to build a rapport with his target.
He said: “Simple rules: find something to say, find common interests to talk about, research them, where they live, everything they talk about. Have a story, a good one and live it.”
Elaborate reasons for seeking money
Although some networks do arrange meetings with their victims, it is more usual for the fraudsters to say they are abroad and then slowly introduce elaborate and apparently documented reasons for seeking money. Among the tricks used by fraudsters is providing details of genuine but very recently liquidated companies to appear as if their credentials are genuine.
Det Ch Insp Fyfe said:
“When they get to the stage of asking for money, it is usually for something like being stopped at customs for fees after buying gifts or having gold with them.
“They can come across as genuine by e-mailing documents that look as if they are from customs. With male victims, it is slightly different. The female suspects usually say they are younger and are abroad on business. They then say they have an issue with customs or have an accident or have a sick child they need to pay medical fees for.”
The amount taken by the fraudsters normally depends on the intensity and duration of the bond, ranging from a few hundred pounds to the entire life savings of some victims.
The Online Dating Association (ODA), the trade body for matchmaking websites, said it works closely with police and provides information to users on the warning signs of potential fraudsters.
The ODA said: “Sudden declarations of love may sound nice but other motives could be there. Use common sense and don’t be afraid to speak to a friend to get a second opinion.
“Some scammers will look to gain your sympathy with emotional stories of ill relatives or financial difficulties or urgent job opportunities and travel needs. Any request for money at any point should ring an alarm bell; however sad, urgent, compelling or heart-wrenching the story.”