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Criminals are preying on singles looking for love in a new scam that has claimed thousands of victims. We uncover the tricks behind lonely hearts scams - and how to avoid them. New figures released this week show that 15,000 people have been scammed by fraudsters since the turn of the year - and the figure has been swelled by the emergence of a disturbing new fraud that leaves its victims both out of pocket and heartbroken.
The survey from national reporting centre Action Fraud identifies the five most commonly reported scams - and among such depressingly familiar crimes such as online shopping fraud and bogus money transfer requests, watchdogs have recorded a surge in ‘lonely hearts’ scams. The crime, which targets romance and dating websites, is currently the third most reported fraud in the UK. And it not only leaves its victims thousands of pounds poorer - it also puts people through intense emotional distress and at possible risk of blackmail.
How the scam works
The scam sees criminals sign up to legitimate dating websites and newspaper singles columns to seek out potential victims. The criminals create fictitious, carefully worded profiles with enticing headings and, more often than not, fake photographs. Once a dialogue has been struck with a potential victim, the scam begins. The criminals may spend several weeks gaining the trust and affection of their intended victim before making their move. After a connection has been made, possibly after several weeks or even months, the fraudster will suggest switching to a more “secure” or “private” method of communication - typically a hard-to-monitor webmail account - and then launch their demands for money. A variety of lies and excuses are made to part victims from their cash. Often perpetrators play on emotions, saying they would like to meet you but are stranded and don't have money to travel or cover visa costs. They may also say that they or a family member require urgent treatment for an illness or require money to pay for a passport or phone bills. In other instances, the tricksters may turn respondents into unwitting “fraud mules”, asking for access to bank accounts, credit cards, passports, e-mail accounts, or national identification numbers to get victims to commit financial fraud on their behalf under the flimsiest of pretexts. Either way, the end result is the same - the victim is conned out of thousands of pounds. One victim of a romance scam uncovered by the Daily Telegraph earlier this year was duped to the tune of £60,000. In another recent case uncovered by the UK’s Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA), a UK woman was kidnapped after travelling to West Africa to meet someone with whom they had established an online friendship. And in some cases, the scam goes on still further. Often the perpetrators will claim they really are in love with their victim - and people who stay are sucked into fresh fraud. In other instances, criminals will use personal information or webcam photos to blackmail their victims.
Danger signs to watch out for
The personal nature of this fraud makes it much harder to spot than other similar crimes but, fortunately, there are signs you can spot - many of which have been collated by US support group Romancescams.org. When contact is first made, they typically want to move the conversation onto an instant messaging service and will immediately ask for a picture. The scammer will most likely be working from outside the UK to avoid detection - which means that communication will be conducted at odd, anti-social hours. They will also rapidly declare their love for their victim in carefully written missives that are actually tried and tested templates where only the names are changed. Romance scammers also avoid answering personal questions and ask their victims many questions. Finally, the conversation will quickly turn to financial matters. Scammers use convincing excuses for their focus on all things financial - they may claim to be in hardship or, conversely, successful businesspeople looking to see if they’ve found a financial match. Either way, they’ll use these questions to assess their victim’s financial worth. How to stay safe Consumer watchdog the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) offers the following advice for people who suspect they could be at risk. The first rule is to be cautious: stick to tried and trusted dating websites and if you receive any requests for money, be suspicious, even if you have known the person for a number of weeks. If the scammer requests your help, ask why - are you really their only hope? Even though you’ve only known them a matter of weeks? And if you meet somebody unknown to you, always meet in a public place and take a friend with you for support if you are unsure. Of course, it may be too late if you’ve divulged confidential information - even unknowingly. If you think you have, check your credit report for signs of suspicious financial activity - you can check your file for free with an Experian trial. Check your bank and credit card statements regularly; if you notice any suspicious withdrawals or purchases, notify your bank or card issuer immediately. And even if no fraud has occurred, it still pays to inform your bank - they may change your details to ensure the safety of your finances. What’s more, if your bank suspects you were negligent with your account details, you may be liable for the losses you suffer - a double-whammy on top of the emotional pain suffered.