Lovesick Brits lose millions to online dating fraudsters
According to figures by the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau, 3,889 people fell victim to this kind of fraud in 2016 alone. Additionally, Britain’s national cybercrime reporting center logs more than 350 online dating scams each month.
Speaking to the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire show, a woman who went by the name of Nancy said more than £300,000 had been extorted from her by a man she met online in 2015.
After her marriage ended, the North Yorkshire single mother joined Match.com in the hope of finding love. She came across a man calling himself ‘Marcelo.’ The man said he was an Italian from Manchester but working in Turkey. Nancy felt they shared “a rapport and similar values.”
Soon they were exchanging messages outside of Match.com. They texted almost around the clock for around six weeks. Then ‘Marcelo’ told Nancy he had been robbed in Turkey and couldn’t pay his employees. He added that his own son was in hospital in need of surgery. Nancy “reluctantly” sent him €3,650 (£3,160).
“It escalated unbelievably quickly, so straight away it was the medical fees, then it was money for food, money needed to pay rent, money for taxes to get out of Turkey,” the woman told the BBC.
“I wasn’t comfortable, and then I got so far in I couldn’t get myself out, and I didn’t want to walk away having lost £50,000 or what have you, so you keep going in the hope that you're wrong and this person is genuine.”
Nancy now says she is close to being bankrupts after passing “over £300,000, maybe even over £350,000” to ‘Marcelo.’
“That’s really frightening, and the other aspect is that somebody’s got inside your head, and they’ve just brutalized you emotionally. In some ways I’m not sure I'll ever recover from that,” she added.
Cases like Nancy’s are on the rise. The National Fraud Intelligence Bureau recorded fewer than 3,000 cases of dating fraud in 2013. Losses that year added up to just over £27 million. The following year there were 3,295 reported cases and losses of £32.25 million.
By 2015 the numbers were 3,363 fraudulent dating reports, but losses dropped slightly to around £26 million. In 2016, however, the numbers rose again to record highs.
“A lot of the online dating fraudsters we know are abroad,” said Action Fraud deputy head Steve Proffitt.
“They’re in West Africa, Eastern Europe and it’s very difficult for British law enforcement to take action against them in those jurisdictions.”
He added that victims lose around £10,000 each on average.
Another woman, Judith Lathlean, told the program how she became the victim of romance fraud after using the website Parship.
The 68-year-old was matched with a man using the name ‘John Porter,’ who said he too was a Christian, honest and trustworthy. But he soon messaged university professor Lathlean about having lost his passport during a business trip to South Africa.
“The emails started getting a bit frantic, and the phone calls - ‘I’m really worried, I’ll lose the contract and this is going to be awful because it’s very valuable,’” she explained. “And I immediately, because I was so believing in him, said, ‘Don’t worry John, I can loan you some money.’ There was a total eventually of £54,000 for that particular part of the scam.”
Sometime later ‘John’ told Lathlean to go and release £15.5 million from a safe deposit box in Amsterdam. She met two people there who asked for a handling fee.
She added: “I didn't think anything of it. That was €16,000 (£13,800), and then they took me into this room and they showed me a trunk, which had all these notes in - all in $100 bills.
“The men were perfectly professional. I got a so-called receipt for the money I took as a management fee. They had an answer for everything.”
In total, Lathlean lost £140,000 to ‘John’ in a series of similar scams.
“It is not the case that stupid people fall for romance scams - they can be very clever,” said cyber-psychologist Professor Monica Whitty.
“The criminal talks to them morning, noon and night. They use email to send poetry, they use instant messenger to groom them, to talk to them, to keep them awake at night. So they groom them until they’re ready to give up money.”
Both Match.com and Parship said they regularly scan for fake accounts and publish advice for members on how to avoid fraudsters, including keeping conversations on their websites so that costumer care teams can identify irregular activities.