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Coronavirus (COVID-19): the policing response and what you need to know

How to stop becoming a victim of romance fraud

People in the South West are being warned of the dangers posed by online scammers as part of a nationwide campaign against romance fraud.

Between August 2019 and August 2020, 198 reports of such crimes were reported in Avon and Somerset, worth £2.4million, but it is believed the true figure of people being tricked into giving over money to fraudsters is likely to be much higher.

While more and more people find love and companionship through the internet, the number of scams conducted via dating websites and social media is increasing too.

That is why Avon and Somerset Police are supporting a national operation, led by City of London Police and Action Fraud, cracking down on offenders who lie their way into their victims’ hearts and con them out money.

One of the most common scams sees the fraudsters create fake profiles online and converse with their targets, often for months on end. Having gained the trust of their selected victim, they then ask for money. The reasons for this can vary from helping them cover an unexpected cash shortfall through to investing in a business opportunity or their long-term future, such as a deposit for a property.

Detective Inspector Marc Milliner, of South West Regional Economic Crime Unit, said: “Romance fraud is a growing issue that forces across the South West are having to tackle.

“With some online frauds we deal with, such as phishing emails, the scam can be over very quickly. But with romance fraud cases, it is not uncommon for the victim to have spent months conversing with someone who turns out to not really exist, by which time an emotional and romantic connection may have formed.

“Our advice is to anyone who has found themselves in that situation is to come forward and report it to Action Fraud as soon as possible. These tricksters are professional and there is no embarrassment in falling for their convincing scams. By coming forward you may prevent other people being preyed upon similarly, or you may be able to recover some of the money lost. Don’t suffer in silence.”

How to stay safe using dating websites:

Police are giving advice out to people to help prevent they falling a victim:

  • Avoid giving away too many personal details when speaking online to someone you’ve never met in person, as it can lead to your identity being stolen. This includes revealing your full name, date of birth and home address -even if you’re doing it for what seems to be harmless reasons, such as your partner wants to send you flowers or a gift.
  • Stay on the site’s messaging service until you meet in person and know they are genuine. Criminals want to quickly switch to other platforms that are less regulated and have better encryption, so there’s no evidence of them asking you for money.
  • On social media, only accept friend requests from people you know and trust.
  • Most online platforms have a reporting tool which you can use if you suspect someone online is using pictures that don’t belong to them, you are suspicious of their behaviour, or they have asked you for money. Reporting their user profile means it can be blocked which helps protect others. 
  • It’s important that no matter how long you’ve been speaking to someone online and how much you trust them, if you haven’t met them in person do not:
    • send them any money
    • allow them access to your bank account
    • transfer money on their behalf
    • take a loan out for them
    • provide copies of your personal documents such as passports or driving licence
    • invest your own money on their behalf or on their advice
    • purchase and send the codes on gift cards from Amazon or iTunes
    • agree to receive and/or send parcels on their behalf (laptops, mobile phones etc.)

A common misconception is that only the vulnerable and elderly will fall for romance scams, but the reality can be quite different. Between August 2019 and August 2020, 81 people from Avon and Somerset who reported romance fraud incidents were aged between 40-59.

DI Milliner added: “Fraudsters do not discriminate – they will target someone regardless of age, gender or background if they think there is a chance to profit.”

How to spot a potential fraudster:

City of London Police has provided tips on how to spot a potential fraudster:

  • They declare love quickly and talk about a big relationship commitment, e.g. marriage or buying a house together.
  • They constantly make up excuses why they can’t video chat or meet in person and they try to move your conversation off the platform that you met on.
  • Their pictures are perfect and might not match up with what they tell you about themselves. Performing a reverse image search on Google can find photos that have been taken from somewhere, or someone, else.
  • They claim to be overseas, working in the military or medical profession, which suggests they are heroic, but gives an excuse for poor connectivity.
  • When they ask for your help, it will be for a time critical emergency. The reason will be something emotive, which pulls at your heartstrings.
  • They tell you to keep your relationship private and insist that you don’t discuss anything you talk about with your friends and family.

DI Milliner added: “We don’t want to put people off using online sites and platforms to communicate. This year, during the COVID pandemic in particular, has shown the value of communicating via the internet. Meeting people online, whether romantically or for friendship, is an important part of modern-day society and we don’t want people to be unduly scared – just mindful that someone may not actually be who they claim to be on their dating profile.

“Following the steps outlined will help keep you safe.”

PCC Sue Mountstevens said: “For victims, romance fraud can be one of the most heart-breaking crimes as individuals have often invested months and sometimes even years into the relationship. It can be very difficult for victims to understand they have been scammed by someone they thought they had a genuine connection with.

“It’s important for victims to know they are not alone as fraudsters know exactly how to tug on heartstrings to persuade the victim to send money.

“While I do not discourage local people connecting with others online, I would advise them to exert caution. Requests for money for any reason should be a red flag. Please speak to the police or Action Fraud for advice.”