Millions of pounds have been lost to ‘romance fraud’ when people confined to spells of isolation during the coronavirus pandemic turn to online dating and end up handing over money after fraudsters gain their trust and ask for help in non-existing emergencies.
Action Fraud, the UK centre for reporting cybercrime and fraud, said on Thursday that between August 2019 and August 2020, losses reported by victims amounted to £66,335,239, equating to an average loss per victim of over £10,000.
From June to August, the centre received more than 600 reports per month for romance fraud, indicating the victims may have met, and begun talking to, romance fraudsters during the lockdown caused by the pandemic.
Romance fraud, or dating fraud, occurs when people think they have met the perfect partner online. They gain trust over a number of weeks or months and have the victims believe that they are in a loving, caring relationship. Fraudsters may be based anywhere across the globe.
However, the criminal’s end goal is only to get the victims’ money or personal information, Action Fraud said.
The centre launched a multi-agency campaign throughout October to raise awareness of romance fraud and provide clear and unambiguous protection advice to the public, following a 26% rise in reports in the past year.
Alex Rothwell of the City of London Police (the UK lead force on fraud) said: “Romance fraud is a devastating crime that impacts victims both financially and emotionally…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,” he added.
Diana Fawcett of charity organisation Victim Support added: “Lockdown restrictions meant people could not meet in person for a number of months, which led to many seeking to form new connections online. While 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,” she added.
The City of London Police said that during October it will co-ordinate enforcement activity across the UK and overseas to target and arrest criminals suspected of committing romance fraud.