18th May 2021

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Romance fraud: Scammers move beyond dating websites to prey on innocent victims

PREYING on players on games websites, using fake photos, and fabricating family emergencies. Police have listed just some of the ways romance fraudsters find their victims and scam them into sending hundreds or thousands of pounds.

Dyfed-Powys Police’s Economic Crime Team is urging people to have their wits about them as it deals with an increasing number of romance fraud cases as people look for friendship or love online.

As part of Dyfed-Powys Police’s INTACT campaign, a communication, education and enforcement campaign led by the force’s Serious Violence and Organised Crime Team, the potentially life-shattering consequences of falling foul of a romance fraud are being highlighted this month.

Fraud safeguarding officer Rebecca Jones said: “We have had victims who have lost their life’s savings, have had to sell their homes, and are completely destroyed after sending huge amounts of money to someone they thought they were in a relationship with.

“Aside from the financial aspect, these victims have lost trust in themselves and others, find it very difficult to open up about what they have been through, and feel totally isolated while trying to recover emotionally.”

Romance fraud is described as when someone creates a fake identity to enter into a relationship with a victim, with the intent to steal either funds or personal information. However, while this kind of crime is also known as a dating scam, relationships are not solely started through dating websites as is frequently believed.

“We do get a number of victims who have gone online to find romance, and have ended up being targeted by criminals,” Rebecca said.

“However, we are now finding that fraudsters are moving into different areas. We have had incidents where two people have met on a games website, where the victim had no intention of finding a partner, and even where a writer had posted work online and was contacted by a scammer who eventually asked for several thousands of pounds.

“As scammers constantly adapt the way they prey on victims, we are urging people to be cautious in all areas of their online lives.”

Despite using various types of websites to seek out unsuspecting victims, the majority of romance fraud incidents follow a similar pattern.

First, trust is gained and a relationship is built up. Then the scammer moves on to asking for money – claiming they have a family or medical emergency, or saying they will use the funds buy a flight ticket to visit their partner. Once this money has been sent, the criminal will keep coming up with new reasons for more money to be sent.

In two recent cases investigated by Dyfed-Powys Police, fraudsters have used photos of international models to set up fake accounts. In one instance, the scammer uploaded a photo of a model with her son, in an attempt to make their victim believe they had a family who needed financial help.

“We do find that victims can be lured in by attractive photos, and very often they do not suspect that these photos have been sourced online,” Rebecca said.

“We know it goes against people’s trusting instincts, but we would highly recommend putting any photos they are sent through a reverse image checker to find the original source. While this is not a fool proof solution, it does offer a layer of protection.”

The Economic Crime Team has also warned that once victims have cut off contact with a scammer, they will still try to find ways of getting in touch with new claims for needing money.

“One of the victims we were supporting continued to receive contact from a person claiming to be a doctor asking for money to cover medical bills, while another posed as a police officer in a series of Skype messages.

“We can’t be sure if the victim told the offender they had reported them, or if they became suspicious after all contact suddenly stopped, but it goes to show the lengths they will take to try and keep the scam going.”

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The team also warned that romance fraud can move beyond sending money to the criminal, with victims becoming money mules or being coerced into sextortion.

DC Gareth Jordan said: “Money muling is where the victim is asked to have funds put into their bank account, which is then transferred to someone else. “This is a crime, and we have experienced victims becoming distraught at finding out they have unknowingly broken the law in having their bank account used in this way.

“Sextortion is where the victim is asked to send the criminal sexual videos or photographs of themselves, and then receive threats that these will be shared with family or friends if they do not pay. This can also have a devastating impact on the emotional and mental health of victims, who feel backed into a corner with nowhere to turn.”

While Dyfed-Powys Police has seen a rise in romance fraud reports over the past year, officers fear the impact of lockdowns and isolations through 2020 and the beginning of 2021 is yet to be seen.

“What we know is that people have been increasingly lonely during the Covid-19 pandemic,” said DC Jordan.

“People have been shielding, isolating and living along without their usual level of contact with family and friends. It is natural to crave human contact, and the first place a lot of people will have turned over the past year is to the internet.
“There has been an increase in the number of reports we have received, but we know that some scammers will spend months, or even years, almost grooming their victims, so the true impact is unknown at present.

“We understand how hard it can be to come to terms with learning that the person you’ve built a relationship with – sometimes over a number of years – isn’t the person they said they were. We speak to victims who are dealing with it totally alone for fear of telling friends or family what has happened. We have support mechanisms in place to help you through the investigation stage and beyond.”

Tips to protect yourself:

1. Be cautious when sharing personal details with potential dates: revealing your full name, date of birth and home address could lead to your identity being stolen.
2. Pick a reputable dating website and use the site’s messaging service. Fraudsters will try to convince you to quickly switch to social media or texting so there’s no evidence of them asking you for money.
3. Never send or receive money or give away your bank details to someone you’ve only met online, no matter how much you trust them or believe their story.

Tips to protect a loved one:

1. Ask questions about your loved one’s new relationship: does it sound like both people are sharing the same kind of information at a similar pace?
2. Ask if you can see their profile: does it look genuine? Do they have multiple photographs that are clearly of the same person? Do the photos look too posed, or is the person clearly a model?
3. Don’t be afraid to share your suspicions with police. You are looking out for your friend or family member, and want to keep them safe. We can help.

Spot the signs:

• You’ve struck up a relationship with someone online; they’re asking a lot of personal questions about you, but they’re not interested in telling you much about themselves.
• Fraudsters often claim that they have high ranking roles or busy, important jobs that keep them away from home for long periods of time. This is to avoid suspicion as to why they can’t meet in person.
• They invent a reason to ask for your help, using the emotional attachment you’ve built with them. Your relationship with them may often depend on you sending money.
• Their pictures are too perfect – they may have been stolen from an actor or model. A reverse image search can find photos that have been taken from somewhere else. Ask a tech-savvy friend or relative to help if unsure.

For more information and advice visit https://takefive-stopfraud.org.uk/advice/general-advice/romance-scam/

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