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Warning to online daters as romance scams increase during lockdown

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

Romance scams have increased as people have searched online for love during the coronavirus lockdowns, figures suggest.

Trade association UK Finance recorded a 20% increase in bank transfer fraud linked to romance scams between January and November 2020, compared with a year earlier.

The total value of these scams increased by 12% annually to £18.5 million between January and November 2020, with victims losing £7,850 on average.

Romance scammers can trick people out of their cash in many ways, not just by bank transfer.

The UK’s national fraud reporting centre Action Fraud has also seen an increase in romance scam reports in 2020, with total reported losses equating to more than £68 million.

In these reports, victims have lost money via bank transfer, money transfer, sending fraudsters gift cards and vouchers or presents such as phones and laptops, and providing them with access to their bank account or card.

Fraudsters will go to great lengths to convince victims that they are in a genuine relationship.

They use emotive language and sob stories to manipulate, persuade and exploit people. They may claim that they need money urgently for medical care or transport costs to visit the victim.

The Online Dating Association (ODA) estimates more than 2.3 million people across Britain used dating apps during the initial coronavirus lockdown, with 64% of people surveyed seeing dating apps as a lifeline for those living alone.

The ODA found half (53%) of people it surveyed are having longer conversations on dating services during lockdown.

UK Finance is therefore urging people to look out for their friends and family this Valentine’s Day (February 14).

Warning signs could include someone being very secretive about their relationship or giving excuses for why their online partner has not video called or met them in person.

UK Finance is encouraging dating app users to speak to their friends and family for advice, and follow the advice of the Take Five to Stop Fraud campaign to stay safe from scams.

Online daters should not send any money, allow the other person to access their bank account, transfer money or take out a loan on the other person’s behalf, hand over copies of personal documents such as their passport or driving licence, or invest money on the other person’s advice, those behind the awareness drive said.

And they should not receive or send parcels on the other person’s behalf, they added.

Fraudsters may also use fake profile photos. Performing a reverse image search on a search engine can help to show whether a photo has been copied from elsewhere.

Katy Worobec, managing director of economic crime at UK Finance, said: “Romance scams can leave customers out of love and out of pocket, but there are steps people can take to keep themselves or their family and friends safe – both on and offline.

“People can help their loved ones spot the signs of a scam, particularly as romance scammers can be very convincing by forming an emotional attachment with their victims.”

Pauline Smith, head of Action Fraud, said: “The national lockdowns, and other restrictions on our social lives, implemented because of the coronavirus outbreak, have meant more people have been seeking companionship online and this has undoubtedly affected the number of reports we have seen.

“It’s important to say that most online dating sites, social media sites and gaming apps are perfectly safe. However, any online platform that allows you to connect with and talk to other people could be targeted by romance fraudsters so it’s important to remain vigilant.”

George Kidd, chief executive of the ODA, said: “You should never hesitate to report if someone asks you for money, even if they do this outside of the dating service.”

Data from Lloyds Bank suggests people aged 55 to 64 could be at particular risk from romance scams.

Paul Davis, retail fraud prevention director at Lloyds Bank, said: “Fraudsters are putting lots of energy into catching people with their guard down and they’re ready to disappear as soon as they’ve got their hands on victims’ cash.

“Scammers do this for a living – they’re in it for the long game and will often spend a lot of time building up a ‘relationship’ and trust – they can invent convincing stories, waiting for the right moment to start tricking people into sending them money.

“If you’ve struck up a conversation or begun a relationship solely online and the discussion moves on to sending money, that’s the time to stop.

“It might be a little at first, but when they know they’ve got you then they will try everything to make maximum profit.”

He added: “Try to talk to friends or family before parting with any cash – even if it feels awkward, others may be able to help spot suspicious activity when they are not emotionally involved.”

Here are some general tips from Take Five to Stop Fraud:

Stop: Taking a moment to stop and think before parting with your money or information could keep you safe.

Challenge: Could it be fake? It is OK to reject, refuse or ignore any requests. Only criminals will try to rush or panic you.

Protect: Contact your bank immediately if you think you have fallen for a scam and report it to Action Fraud.