The internet love cheats after your cash: How to protect yourself as fraudsters target dating sites to steal money and IDs
Love hurts, so the song goes, but it can also wreck your finances if the object of your affection proves to be a fake.
Organised gangs of scammers, using both humans and robots, are ruthlessly targeting people through online dating services to steal money and identities.
As the number of victims rises, follow our guide to fend off internet love cheats.
Romantics are preparing for Valentine’s Day on Tuesday but Cupid’s arrow has a costly outcome for an increasing number of single people searching for a soulmate.
The booming £12billion online dating market is proving rich fodder for fraudsters who regularly trawl websites to hoodwink thousands of victims out of millions of pounds every year.
A dating fraud campaign launched today aims to stamp out these ‘romance scams’ – where dates turn out to be nothing more than fraudsters who destroy people’s lives both financially and emotionally.
The crime cost victims a collective £39million last year, a rise of nearly 50 per cent since 2015.
Police figures show that 3,900 people reported being duped into parting with an average £10,000 last year through dating websites, with two thirds of victim’s women and one in four in their 50s. The average time it takes for someone to start sending money to a fraudster is 30 days.
The ‘date safe’ campaign is a collaboration between the charity Victim Support, advice website Get Safe Online, Age UK, City of London Police and Metropolitan Police, working with trade body the Online Dating Association.
A spokesman for the City of London Police warns: ‘The numbers we see are just the tip of the iceberg as people often do not report cases because they feel stupid for being deceived.’
People often do not report cases because they feel stupid for being deceived
The campaign hopes to prevent the heartache and financial loss suffered by people such as David, who told The Mail on Sunday about being defrauded of his life savings in a dating scam.
The warehouse worker is still piecing his life and finances back together three years on.
David, 58, turned to online dating after the break-up of a long-term relationship. He says: ‘I tried to meet someone the conventional way by going out with friends, but got nowhere so I tried a dating website.’
He soon stumbled across the profile of a woman called ‘Kerry’, who resembled someone he had known years before, who had moved to Canada. They began chatting online, but it was not long before she suggested they move their communications off the website.
A scammer’s classic ploy is to lure their target away from the relative safety of the dating website. David says: ‘We started emailing each other instead. The relationship made me happy.’
About four months later Kerry, who claimed to be 45, began to request money, initially for an air fare from Ghana, where she said she lived. David says: ‘I agreed and sent money through the MoneyGram service at a post office.’
Have you lost your heart – and money – to an online trickster? Tell us in confidence. Email firstname.lastname@example.org
The use of a money transfer service is another crafty ruse, as payees cannot be easily traced.
David became suspicious as the requests for cash increased. But so sophisticated was the scam that Kerry produced a plane ticket, visa and other paperwork that all appeared genuine.
He even called the immigration number on her documents. Unfortunately, it was an accomplice at the end of the phone. In total, David sent Kerry £15,000.
He says: ‘I got into debt, but she said she would pay me back.’
When Kerry said she could not get the flight to visit him without yet another payment to ‘immigration’, David finally sought advice and learnt he had been scammed. He had been targeted in a wider £7million fraud.
Devastated, he turned to Victim Support to help him get back on his feet emotionally, and to debt charity StepChange to sort out his debts.
He says: ‘I was encouraged to take up a hobby and have been ballroom dancing several nights a week. It has been great as therapy and for making friends.
‘I’ve only just started to be able to trust people again. It would be nice to have romance, but I will never go near another dating website.’
He said he was a US soldier who needed to get out of the army
Another victim who is also wary of the internet and has not used social media since she was scammed is ‘Julie’ – not her real name.
Three years ago, Julie signed up to a dating website and fell for a ‘tall, dark and very handsome man in uniform’. He claimed to be a widower in his late-40s with a teenage daughter.
Julie, then 47, believed he was from the American Midwest, a career soldier and an animal-lover who was fond of travel and looking for a long-term relationship.
He told her he needed to buy himself out of the army and asked for thousands of pounds. Julie paid £5,000 in total.
It was only when her sister became suspicious that she got in contact with the American Embassy to check his credentials. Her sister told The Mail on Sunday: ‘Within 24 hours they confirmed he didn’t exist. And the mobile number he’d given her was tracked to Africa. She called it to confront him but he hung up. The number was no longer in service when she tried again.’
Analysis suggests that most victims of relationship fraud are men and women in their 40s and 50s
Julie, like most victims, feels ‘angry, stupid, duped and impotent’.
Behind the scenes, dating websites try to prevent these nightmares by weeding out scammers. Matt Connolly, founder of MyLovelyParent, aimed at older divorced or widowed customers, says it checks the IP or Internet Protocol address that pinpoints the location of computers.
He says: ‘If someone says they are in the UK, but the IP address is Nigeria, then that rings alarm bells and we can delete a profile.
‘None of the profiles go up on the website until they have been approved by humans.’
Dan Winchester works for Scamalytics, a software company that helps protect many dating websites and their customers.
He says: ‘We help websites share intelligence, so if a scammer targets someone on one website this will be flagged up to others.’
Know the tell-tale signs: How to spot an internet dating fraudster
Classic signals that a fraudster is at work include the use of fake photos, culled from other websites, or overly elaborate language on their profile.
Winchester says: ‘Sometimes they use the same photos, but with different profiles, which is another red flag.’
Many romance scams are even carried out by ‘bots’ – whose questions and responses are automated using artificial intelligence software. Their aim can be as simple as to persuade a customer to switch to another ‘better’ website and take out a new subscription.
This can be either a legitimate website that pays commission for new leads or a fake website gathering the cash for itself.
Although people of all ages and genders are potential targets, analysis suggests that most victims of relationship fraud are men and women in their 40s and 50s.
Winchester says scammers typically use photos of classically attractive women, often blue-eyed brunettes aged about 30, which are lifted from glamour websites, to reel in 50-something males.
Female victims are usually hooked with profiles of middle-aged men. They are often of average appearance, wearing shirts with button down collars, and who claim to have solid jobs in the likes of medicine, the military or engineering.
It is often this appearance of normality that lures victims in. Neil Masters, national fraud and cybercrime lead at Victim Support, says: ‘We want to encourage anyone who may have been affected to seek help. People should not feel ashamed or embarrassed if they have been tricked this way.’