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“The pressure I was under was immense. I can’t tell you how awful I felt at the time. I feel I have been violated, sick to the stomach with the enormity of what has happened. You just can’t get out of it.”
Those are the words of Anna* who was conned out of hundreds of thousands of pounds in a sophisticated romance fraud case earlier this year, spanning not only the West Country and Suffolk, but several different continents.
Here she talks about her own experience and warns people who find themselves in a similar position to contact the police or Action Fraud.
Anna, who is in her 50s and from Suffolk, lost her husband to an illness last year; with lockdown looming in March she found herself alone, isolated and looking for companionship.
She said: “I coped quite well initially after my husband’s death, but after Christmas and then with the COVID-19 pandemic, I went into a bit of a decline. I wasn’t lonely as my family, who don’t live locally, are very supportive, but I felt very vulnerable and isolated with my grief, especially as I live on my own.”
Anna had met her husband via a dating website and felt it was initially a good way of connecting with people at a time when normal life was changing and face-to-face contact not possible.
She was approached by Tim* from Windsor – a civil engineer. Or so he claimed.
Using the website’s chat facility they begin to get to know each other. Tim then suggested they chat through WhatsApp instead of the official website and he sent Anna more photos of himself.
When they spoke for the first time over the phone, Anna detected a foreign accent she was not expecting. Tim said he was South African and had forgotten to mention that before.
Tim told Anna he was going abroad for work as he was project managing a transportation scheme in Eastern Romania. He claimed he was chartering a private plane to get all his equipment over there for the job. He even sent a picture, supposedly of himself at the site, to Anna, convincing her he was telling the truth.
But he soon claimed things were not going according to plan – and he needed Anna’s help. He said his equipment had been seized by customs and he would need to pay import duty on them to have them released and his company credit card had been blocked by his bank.
Anna initially did not offer to help financially, and suggested he seek help from the British Consulate and his accountant, but as the days passed Tim’s pleas got more desperate. Money for accommodation, food, car hire and translator fees were among his next problems.
“Like a fool I asked him to tell his translator to get customs to contact me and I would see if could help logistically to cover the duty costs from here in the UK.”Anna
Tim asked Anna to buy Amazon vouchers online which amounted to approximately £3,500 over several weeks, which she thought were covering his day-to-day expenses of accommodation and food.
Tim then said he needed £68,000 to get his engineering equipment released from customs. Anna agreed to give the money straight to the authorities provided she was given their account details, and asked to see his passport and driving licence to reassure everything was above board. This request was met with dramatic conversations over trust at a difficult and stressful time and Anna felt pressurised by Tim into transferring the cash into a UK bank account, which he claimed belonged to his translator called Harriet*. She tested it with £1 and when it went through, agreed to transfer £25,000 per day to cover his costs – the maximum amount her bank said she could give.
However, despite giving more than £70,000 in vouchers and cash, Tim’s demands did not stop. Next he needed £200,000 to secure his contractors and store his equipment. Anna said no, but by this time was under immense emotional pressure by Tim on a daily basis. Suddenly after a few days of worrying silence, Tim sent a text saying he had been admitted into private hospital with COVID-19, could not fly home and his translator had died of the illness.
Then all went quiet. Despite leaving text messages and having phone calls unanswered, Anna was left not only worrying if Tim was OK, but whether he would be able to return the money he borrowed as promised.
Anna made calls to the British Consulate in Bucharest and South African authorities to seek help to get Tim home, but there was no record of Tim in any hospital or even in Romania. The motorway building project was real, but Tim was not.
By this time Anna had given £320,000 to Tim, a man she had known for 10 weeks – inheritance money she had only just received from her parents.
She said: “The pressure I was under was immense. I can’t begin to tell you how awful I felt at the time. My heart and head were in conflict.
“The enormity of how I had been scammed hit home. I couldn’t sleep for days. I felt so sick with it all, and could not confide in anyone the stupidity of my actions.
“Not only the magnitude of the loss made me feel dreadful, but also the feeling I’d lost everything my parents had worked for.”
Due to Anna’s initial reluctance to give money to Tim for fear of it being a scam, she was instead instructed to transfer it to a UK account he claimed was held by his translator.
The account owner, Harriet, lived in Bath and North East Somerset and so the case was passed over to Avon and Somerset Police to investigate. However, detectives discovered Harriet was no criminal – she was also a victim of romance fraud.
Harriet, who is in her 60s, had met Toby* online and the pair had been in a relationship for eight months. Toby said he was living abroad, but had proposed to Harriet and was showing her expensive properties that he wanted them to buy so they could live together in the UK.
Toby discussed a cryptocurrency investment scheme with Harriet and promised he would transfer some money to her via his bank teller – called Anna. He asked Harriet to pass the money on to the investment scheme once she received it, which she did. But what Harriet did not know was the money belonged to Anna, a fellow romance fraud victim, rather than a bank teller.
Toby also persuaded Harriet to use some of her own money, including from her retirement fund, in the scheme. In total Harriet lost approximately £10,000.
Harriet feels she has been ‘mentally abused’ by what happened.
She said: “I can’t move forward from this and lost trust in a way. I feel like I’ve built this wall around me; it’s like a prison but it makes me feel safe in a funny kind of way.”Harriet
Support for victims
Anna contacted Victim Support about what happened and said they were excellent. She also reported the matter to Action Fraud and they informed police back in Suffolk and Avon and Somerset.
An investigation was launched and found the money Harriet had transferred had gone through Australia to a money laundering enterprise in the Far East, at which point the trail went cold.
To this day Anna has not told her family of the scam and money she lost. She confided in one friend and admits she burst into tears once she unburdened herself with what had happened.
She said: “I can’t fault the work Avon and Somerset Police have done but there’s a limit to the amount of time that can be spent with these kinds of things.
“I hold my hands up to being stupid and the naivety of it all.
“I hang my head in shame. COVID just came at the wrong time for me.”
Anna has managed to recover half the money she lost through her bank, but feels they could have done more by questioning the regular transfers she was making.
Anna is now in a new relationship and hopes to put what happened behind her and focus on a brighter future.
What to do if you are a victim
DS Louise Sinclair said: “We hope Anna and Harriet’s experiences encourage people to tell police and Action Fraud when they are targeted in a scam.
“We believe some victims are reluctant to come forward as they are embarrassed, but these criminals are predatory and groom their victims, who should feel no shame. These scammers are calculated and pull at the heart-strings of people they believe are kind-hearted.
“We would urge everyone to be aware of signs of romance fraud and to speak with your bank, or approach Action Fraud or the police, if you feel you are being scammed. Your concerns will be taken seriously.”
* To protect the identity of the victims, pseudonyms have been used.
Have you been a victim of fraud? Visit Action Fraud’s website for details on how to report incidents.