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Romance scammers are thriving during the pandemic

After splitting from her husband of nearly three decades and spending the past six years on-and-off dating apps, Claire Spencer thought she had finally found love again.

She had yet to meet him in person but ‘Jack’, who described himself as a ‘simple, fun-loving bloke’ in his Plenty of Fish bio, seemed to share so much in common with her.

They were both 49 and from Winsford – although Jack claimed he was based in Cambodia, working on a resort contract he had recently been awarded as a building designer.

When Claire told him she was looking for someone ‘who likes going to the beach and on dog walks’, he assured her that they were ‘on the same page’.

However, after two months of intense messaging earlier this year and one cut-off phone call later, Claire, 50, found herself not only nursing a heartbreak but left hundreds of pounds down. There was no Jack; she had been scammed. 

‘I can’t even begin to describe how disappointed I am in myself,’ she says. ‘I suffered endless nightmares about being taken advantage and felt so upset and humiliated.

‘I’ve been through so much in the last few years, but this one completely caught me off guard.’ 

While romance scams – which involve feigning interest towards a trusting victim before attempting to extort money from them – are not a new phenomenon, last year saw a 38% increase in bank transfer romance fraud compared to 2019.

According to finance, fraud and security experts, the pandemic’s mix of limiting social interaction along with people’s heightened sense of vulnerability, has created the perfect picking ground for dating scammers.

An estimated total of £21.2 million was lost to romance traps last year, according to industry insiders UK Finance – that’s a 17% rise from 2019, with the average loss per victim being £7,850.

However, scammers are not just relying on money transfers to fuel their ill-gotten gains.

‘Victims have also lost it by sending fraudsters gift cards and vouchers, or presents such as phones and laptops, and by providing them access to their bank accounts and credit cards,’ explains Katy Worobec, the organisation’s Managing Director of economic crime. 

Research from the Online Dating Association also reveals that over 2.3 million Britons used dating apps during the first lockdown, with 64% of people surveyed seeing them as a lifeline for those living alone.

Unsurprisingly, more respondents in the 18-34 years old age group say they were using online dating services than those who were over-55.

Laura Lyons runs a private investigation firm whose services include looking into romance frauds for clients. ‘During the pandemic, we’ve seen people searching for love online more than ever before, as they’ve not been able to go out and physically meet potential partners,’ she explains.

Hands using phone with two PCs working in background
An estimated total of £21.2 million was lost to romance traps last year (Picture: Getty Images)

‘People have also been very isolated and are therefore more vulnerable than they were two years ago. The fraudsters know this and have been using it to their advantage.’

However, it’s no longer just dating sites and apps that crooks use to look for their next victim, warns Laura. Her firm, Are They Safe, has seen scammers become more creative by moving onto social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook as well.

When it came to Claire, what seemed like the start of a fairy tale love story actually came straight out of the scammers’ handbook. For starters, Jack had been extremely forthright in his romantic intentions and came on strong with his compliments.

He had called her ‘beautiful’ the moment they started messaging and was quickly addressing her by intimate pet names. With each exchange, Jake showered Claire with further affection to build up her trust and within weeks he had admitted he’d fallen in love with her – something Claire reciprocated as she felt it too.

Dr Elisabeth Carter, Senior Lecturer in Criminology and Forensic Linguist at the University of Roehampton, notes that this is the modus operandi of romance fraudsters.

‘The grooming process is very subtle and occurs often over months or even years,’ she explains. ‘Fraudsters will distort perceptions of power and skew a victim’s reality by controlling the dialogue while also making themselves appear vulnerable. Red flags are cleverly disguised so that they appear normal and expected to the victim.

‘They will also set up information early on in the conversation that seems ordinary, such as talk about their work, that they then later rely on to support and normalise their request for money.

‘These don’t often appear like a straightforward plea for cash though. It can look like asking for help for a health-related issue, reasonable help to get out of a situation outside of their control, or a joint venture, among others.’

Claire Spencer lying down wearing a white hoodie, cuddling her dog
Jack showered Claire with compliments and affection to build up her trust (Picture: Claire Spencer)

Jack’s appeal for financial help came six weeks after he and Claire had started ‘dating’. 

‘He told me that his wallet had been stolen by his co-worker,’ she remembers. ‘He said he wasn’t able to pay his hotel bills and wouldn’t be able to leave and make the flight home to see me.

‘At first I advised Jack to contact the UK Embassy, but he said it wasn’t possible as the office was hours away.

‘I actually said to him that he sounded like a scammer because he’d asked for money and his reply was, “Do you actually hear yourself right now!”‘

Initially feeling a little bit sceptical, Claire held off on sending the money over, but Jack grew angry.

‘I’m tired of convincing you,’ he wrote in one text message, accompanied by a photograph of his passport.

‘I wonder how you’ll feel when you finally see me at the airport and realise that all these hurtful things you’ve been doing to me was all for nothing,’ he continued. ‘I hope you’ll be able to forgive yourself.’ 

Eventually, Claire relented and transferred £500 to Jack, which she borrowed from a friend.

‘What got me was when he said that he was starving, and I couldn’t bear it,’ she admits. ‘So I still sent the money hoping it would get him on the flight and the ordeal would be over.’

Guilt-tripping behaviour is another leaf out of the scammers handbook, according to Dr Elisabeth. ‘Fraudsters will play on themselves being vulnerable and manoeuvre the victim into a position of responsibility for their health and wellbeing, effectively trapping them in the relationship though a sense of duty and guilt,’ she says.

Dr Elisabeth Carter - she is standing against a white wall and wearing a white top. She has shoulder length brown hair and glasses
Subtle grooming followed by guilt-tripping are classic behaviours of romance scammers, says Dr Elisabeth Carter (Picture: Lightmonkey Photography)

‘The victim is made to feel unreasonable, disloyal or paranoid, as if they are causing their significant other – the fraudster, in this case – harm if they start to feel uneasy.’

Claire finally uncovered the truth after her concerned friend conducted a reverse image search and discovered ‘Jack’ had been passing off photographs of an Italian model, Peppe Di Giorgi, as himself.

However when she confronted Jack about it, he continued to feign ignorance, even asking Claire why there were images of him all over the internet. After multiple back-and-forth arguments, she never heard from him again.

As soon as she realised she’d been scammed Claire reported the crook to Action Fraud, Plenty of Fish, the police and her bank.

While the chances of recovering her money are slim, it is not the financial loss that pains Claire the most – it’s the emotional cost. ‘It’s like getting divorced all over again and I think about it all the time,’ she says.

‘But I know I can’t change what happened and I’ve definitely learnt from it. Now I stay off most social media sites and I’m not ever going back to online dating ever again.’

When Amy (not her real name) tried her hand at Facebook Dating last year, she thought she knew the warning signs to look out for.

‘I’m single and live alone,’ says the 47-year-old from Essex. ‘Getting through the pandemic by myself was isolating, so I turned to online dating for companionship.’

Within days, she matched with someone that felt like her ‘soulmate’.

‘He was kind, loving and attentive. He wrote me poems and we had long, deep conversations. We even talked about settling down together,’ she recalls.

The man told Amy that he was a British soldier deployed abroad and was due to return home to the UK soon, but that he had to first clear a mountain of medical debt.

‘I believed him because he didn’t ask me for money straightaway. When the requests finally came, I didn’t suspect a thing because he was so genuine.’

Over six months, Amy wire transferred nearly £20,000 of her savings. 

‘I know it’s a huge sum of money,’ she says. ‘But I did it because I truly believed that I was helping someone I love get out of a bad situation.’

However, when the day for came for her ‘boyfriend’ to board his flight, he asked for another loan of £4,500, citing various emergencies including needing to replace lost travel documents.

Feeling alarmed by such a last-minute request, Amy pressed him for more details – but was met with silence. She hasn’t heard from him since.

With police investigations still pending, Amy’s family and friends have helped her get back on her feet, but it is an experience that has left the civil servant scarred.

‘I told whoever pretended to be this man my deepest feelings,’ she says. ‘It’s just unimaginably painful to know I’ve been taken advantage of. I still feel so foolish.’

Although more than 30 major banks and building societies have signed up to the Take Five charter – set up by the Metropolitan Police, with support from Financial Fraud Action UK – to help members of the public spot the signs of a scam, Dr Elisabeth argues that public-facing advice needs to reflect the deeper reality of romance fraud.

‘It’s sometimes not as simple as “don’t send money to people you have just met online” as the grooming process means victims will not recognise that this is what they are doing,’ she says.

‘Changing the narrative will go some way to help people to protect themselves from fraudulent relationships before they get too far, and help others who are in one to get out of it.’ 

However, societal stigma and shame associated with victims of romance fraud often intimidate many into silence.

Amy concedes that she didn’t want to go to the police at first. ‘I knew I was going to be judged and I didn’t feel like telling even more people how gullible I was,’ she admits. ‘I only had the courage to do so after a lot of encouragement from friends.’

As such, while Action Fraud has recorded a rise in reports last year, receiving more than 600 reports each month during June, July and August 2020,the true figure could actually be much higher.

Yet victims coming forward is crucial, not just for raising awareness of the prevalence of these crimes, but also for solving them.

Detective Chief Superintendent Alex Rothwell - he is wearing a grey suit, white shirt and is standing outside
Detective Chief Superintendent Alex Rothwell says it’s vital people come forward if they have been scammed (Picture: City of London Police)

City of London Police is the national lead force for fraud and by working with banks, building societies and the post office, they have prevented a loss of £142 million to romance fraud and made 843 arrests over the last five years.

‘Every report counts,’ explains Detective Chief Superintendent Alex Rothwell. ‘Understanding the methodology that fraudsters use to persuade victims to hand over funds and the mediums they use to transfer the money enables us to work with financial institutions in both the banking and money-transfer sectors, and helps us identify transactions that may be linked to romance frauds. So it is really important for people to come forward and tell us about it.’

Laura has also seen her fair share of heartbroken clients and says that if we want to reduce stigma and create a safe space for victims to step forward, it will require empathy on society’s part.

‘People often ask me if I think victims are naive,’ she says.

‘But it’s important to understand that as long as you’re a nice and genuine person, then you can potentially be one too.’

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