When Eleanor Harper found out the man she thought was in love with her, was in fact conning her for money, she felt violated. “I lost £21,000 to him, but I also lost my trust in other people,” said Ms Harper, 53. “I am recently widowed, the scammer knew I was vulnerable.”
She is one of a rapidly growing number of people falling victim to romance scams, where a criminal pretends to be in a relationship with someone they have met online in order to extract money.
Senior police officers and fraud experts have criticised dating agencies and social media firms for failing to protect their customers and are calling on them to improve their identity checks.
The explosion of this kind of scam will be the next area of focus in the first national police crackdown on fraud, as Telegraph Money reported last week. However, officers said it will be effective only with cooperation from private companies.
How criminals slip through the cracks
Accounts with dating agencies and social media sites can be set up in less than five minutes and users are not always asked to verify their identity when applying. This allows scammers easily set themselves up using a fake name, said Barclays’ Luke Ryder.
Ashley Hart of TSB said many sites are slow to recognise the threat of romance scams and do little to prevent them. Even when fraudsters have been reported, sites are slow to react and often scam accounts are not taken down, allowing criminals to continue stealing money.
A fraud expert at one high street bank said the lack of regulation means, when accounts are eventually shut, fraudsters simply open another using a different name and email address.
Graeme Biggar of the National Economic Crime Centre (NECC), a government body, said pursuit of fraudsters is often hampered by data not being made available to the police.
“We need to be smarter at identifying these criminals, but frankly, some social media sites could be more helpful as well,” he added.
The scale of the problem
Reported romance scams jumped by 50pc from the first half of 2018 to the first half of 2019, figures from trade body UK Finance showed. In the past year, a quarter of people using online dating services were contacted by someone using a fake name or picture.
Those falling victim often lose life-changing sums. According to Barclays, the average amount lost by its customers to romance scams is £11,500. Other banks have reported cases where hundreds of thousands of pounds was taken.
Commander Karen Baxter of the City of London Police said some dating agencies act with due diligence, but others do not. “We see a large number of cases coming from a few specific firms,” she added.
Widows and divorcees are common targets
Ms Harper met her fraudster via Match.com. They began to speak regularly, phoning each other two or three times a day. “He would tell me he loved me and talk about our future together – all the things you want to hear,” she said.
After seven weeks, he started asking her for money, claiming his bank account had been blocked. Ms Harper agreed, transferring in total £21,000. The relationship only ended when her bank, NatWest, became involved as it suspected she was being scammed.
“Dating sites need to do better checks that people are who they say they are – especially when you’re paying for the service,” Ms Harper said. “I won’t ever use one again until they change their rules.”
Some ask you to specify whether you have been divorced or widowed and Mr Ryder said criminals can use this as a way to identify vulnerable potential victims.
Ms Harper said she did not remember seeing any warnings about potential scammers when using Match.com. Some sites do have generic warnings however Mr Hart said they needed to be more prominent.
Victims rarely get their money back
Scammers are increasingly turning to social media to target victims. Suzanne Trott, also in her 50s, was conned into handing more than £20,000 to a man who built up a relationship with her via Instagram and told her he wanted to marry her.
Ms Trott received her money back, as her bank TSB offers guaranteed refunds for fraud victims. Ms Harper was also refunded by NatWest. However they are among the lucky few. Of the £7.9m stolen from victims in the first half of 2019, less than 7pc was returned, according to UK Finance.
A Match.com spokesman said its members’ safety is its highest priority and that it has a dedicated security team to review profiles. He added that the site has a function to report a profile on all its platforms.
Instagram, which is part of Facebook, said that fraudulent activity is not tolerated on its platforms and it is currently investing in tackling the issue.
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