Romance scam reports and online dating scams have soared during the coronavirus pandemic.
Analysis by consumer group Which? found that romance fraud reports were up by 40 per cent in the year to April of this year, compared with the previous year, with more than 7,500 reported scams.
Reported losses reached £73.9mduring the period – but the true figure is likely to be much higher as many victims are too embarrassed or upset to tell the authorities.
Warning signs of an online dating scam include people making excuses for why they cannot meet up in person, making over-the-top declarations of love when they hardly know the person they are communicating with, and inventing a sob story for why they urgently need money.
Building a life together
Fraudsters often claim they need the money to travel to the UK so they can “build a life” with the victim.
In one case highlighted by Which?, a man was exchanging messages in 2019 with a potential love interest on Older Dating Online with a woman supposedly based in Russia, who asked for £650 to obtain a passport. This was quickly followed by more requests for cash.
He said: “I became suspicious and contacted my bank to report the scam, but the money couldn’t be recovered. I haven’t dated at all since the scam.”
OlderDatingOnline.co.uk told Which?: “We take the safety of our members very seriously. When a member attempts to register to the service, they undergo various assessments performed by a third party, fraud and scammer detection service, before they can successfully register.
“When a member submits public content to their profile, including imagery, this is checked by our moderation team. Our customer service team performs a number of manual profile checks to remove disingenuous people.”
Another man, aged 65, was cheated out of nearly £4,000 after meeting someone on Twitter, Which? said.
This scammer posed as a young woman, but the victim later discovered he was messaging a man in Nigeria, according to the consumer group.
The man said he was “heartbroken and very upset” after discovering the truth. He added: “This is such a cruel thing to do to an elderly pensioner who wanted love but instead got fleeced.”
Twitter has since permanently suspended the scammer’s profile.
In a statement given to Which?, Twitter said: “It is against our rules to use scam tactics on Twitter to obtain money or private financial information. Where we identify violations of our rules, we take robust enforcement action.”
“We’re constantly adapting to bad actors’ evolving methods, and we will continue to iterate and improve upon our policies as the industry evolves.”
Fake videos and pictures
Online fraudsters may use fake videos as well as fake photos.
One Which? member reported via the consumer group’s “scam watch” inbox that she had a strange video call with someone she later discovered was using stolen video footage.
She said: “How they did it I have no idea because I discovered those pictures were of a plastic surgeon in the USA. It worries me that some women will fall for it.”
To find out whether a photo is fake, consumers can use TinEye or Google Image Search to do a reverse image search, Which? said. This tracks where else on the internet the photo exists to see if it could be a stock or stolen image.
Which? consumer rights expert Adam French said: “Romance scams are particularly devastating for victims, who may be vulnerable when they are targeted by fraudsters – and it is very worrying to see such a huge rise in these scams as criminals look to exploit the pandemic.
“Where appropriate, banks and payment providers should be following the code they signed up to and reimbursing victims of scams that use sophisticated psychological tactics to trick victims into handing over their cash.
“Anyone who is struggling to get their money back from their bank should report this to the Financial Ombudsman Service to review their case.”