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Romance scams rise during lockdown as people seek ‘connections online’

Vicky Shaw, PA Personal Finance Correspondent
·4-min read

More than 600 reports of romance scams per month were made to Action Fraud during June, July and August, as dating fraudsters have been exploiting victims’ desire for human contact during the lockdown.

Police forces and other organisations are running a campaign throughout October to raise awareness of romance fraud, following a 26% increase in reports to Action Fraud in the past year.

The average victim of romance fraud loses just over £10,000.

Romance fraud, or dating fraud, occurs when people think they have met the perfect partner online but their “date” is using a fake profile to form a relationship. They gain the victim’s trust over weeks or months but the criminal’s end goal is to get the victim’s money or personal information.

They may come up with a sob story for why they urgently need money, try to steer their chats off the dating website, and be reluctant to meet up in person.

Diana Fawcett, chief executive of charity Victim Support, said: “Lockdown restrictions meant people could not meet in person for a number of months, which led to many seeking to form new connections online.

“Whilst using the internet can be a great way to meet people and form relationships, there’s also a great risk of being lured into a romance scam as fraudsters know how to take advantage of people’s desire for human contact.

“Unfortunately, we’ve seen that circumstances caused by coronavirus were in fact used by fraudsters as a ‘hook’ to extort money. For example, some have invented lies about needing medical treatment, or urgent travel expenses to leave a country, or funds to keep afloat after a bogus job loss caused by the pandemic.”

Since August 2019, the average number of reports made per month to Action Fraud about romance scams has been 400.

Losses reported by victims between August 2019 and August 2020 totalled £66,335,239.

Temporary Detective Chief Superintendent Alex Rothwell, from the City of London Police, said: “Romance fraud is a devastating crime that impacts victims both financially and emotionally.”

He added: “Criminals are experts at impersonating people. They spend hours researching you for their scams, especially when committing romance fraud. We’re reminding everyone to stop and think: fall for the person, not the profile, it could protect you and your money.”

City of London Police said popular platforms where victims reported first interacting with criminals committing romance fraud were Facebook, Plenty of Fish, Instagram, Tinder and Match.com.

As part of the campaign, the Match Group, which owns OK Cupid, Plenty of Fish, Tinder and Match.com, is running romance fraud protection adverts throughout October on these platforms.

Many online platforms have a reporting tool which people can use if they suspect someone is a scammer. Reporting their user profile means it can be blocked, which also helps to protect others.

Justine Sacco, chief communications officer at Match Group, said: “We want all of the members of our community to feel safe on our apps and feel equipped to protect themselves from romance scams.”

City of London Police is also working with money transfer companies to help block transfers suspected of being linked to romance scams.

Security Minister James Brokenshire said: “We are committed to cracking down on fraud in all its guises by working closely with industry, law enforcement and regulators to reduce the number of victims and ensure they get the support and advice they need.”

George Kidd, chief executive of the Online Dating Association, which is also involved in the campaign said: “We use technology and human moderation to block fake profiles, create safer messaging platforms, and increasing use of video chat and photo verification that makes it harder still to invent a profile and get away with it.”

Katy Worobec, managing director of economic crime at UK Finance, said: “Always be wary of requests for money from someone you’ve never met in person. If you think you’ve been the victim of a romance scam, contact your bank immediately.”