Romance scams: police figures show fraudsters gained £88m from victims in 2022 - with men in 20s worst hit
Victims lost £11,000 on average, analysis of Action Fraud figures shows
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Victims of dating scams lost a combined £88 million to fraudsters last year, official figures show.
Men in their 20s were most likely to fall victim to the romance scams, followed by women in their 50s.
There were nearly 8,000 separate crimes reported to Action Fraud nationwide last year.
And this could be the tip of the iceberg, with many more victims thought to be too embarrassed to report the matter to police.
Temporary Detective Chief Superintendent Matt Bradford, from the City of London Police, which helps to run Action Fraud, said: “Typically, romance fraudsters will spend weeks gaining their victims’ trust, feeding them fabricated stories about who they are and their lives - and initially make no suggestion of any desire to ask for any money, so the victim may believe their new love interest is genuine.
“But weeks, or sometimes months later, these criminals will ask for money for a variety of emotive reasons and as the emotional relationship has already been formed, victims often transfer money without a second thought.”
Three high street financial institutions - Lloyds Bank, Nationwide Building Society and TSB - have all issued separate warnings and advice on what they call ‘romance fraud’ in the run-up to Valentine’s Day.
Liz Ziegler, Fraud Prevention Director at Lloyds Bank, said: “The convincing lies told by fraudsters mean that while romance scam victims think they are falling in love, they’re actually falling for a scam. As well as losing thousands of pounds they also have to deal with this emotional betrayal.
“The sad truth is there was never any genuine connection, with criminals ruthlessly targeting multiple victims at the same time, and disappearing with the money as soon as they get found out.”
The figures behind dating scams
Dating scams cost victims tens of millions of pounds each year - a reported £88m was lost in 2022 alone, an average of £11,000 per victim.
Men and women are both targeted by scammers fairly equally, according to the figures from Action Fraud, which works on behalf of police in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Of the victims who revealed their gender to police last year, 51% were male and 49% female.
Perhaps surprisingly, given that younger people are assumed to be more digitally savvy, it is people in their 20s who are most likely to report a dating scam.
Nearly a fifth of dating scams (19%) were reported by people aged 20 to 29 last year, followed by people in their 50s (18%) and 40s (17%).
Looking at age and gender combined, men in their 20s made up the largest group of victims, followed by women in their 50s.
The overall number of scams reported fell by 12% last year, to 7,938, but this is still well above the number reported in 2019 or 2020.
Cases were reported across the UK, but the police force area with the highest rate of reported scams was Gloucestershire at 23.7 reports per 100,000 residents, followed by Dyfed-Powys in Wales and Nottinghamshire.
While Action Fraud does not operate in Scotland, people living there sometimes report incidents via its website. These figures include those reports.
Police Scotland do not publish figures on romance fraud cases.
Sally* found out the impact romance fraud can have not only on the victims, but also their families, after her father lost £1,000 to a scammer who gained his trust.
Her dad, who is in his 60s and suffers from Parkinson’s, had been contacted on social media by someone claiming to be a woman called Gail living in Texas in the US. They struck up an online relationship and Gail concocted a story about coming to the UK to visit him and needing to get her passport renewed. She did not ask for money at first and Sally’s father offered to pay, but this was initially declined.
Some weeks later, Gail asked Sally’s father for money and the next day, he transferred her £1,000. Despite Sally’s efforts to get the bank to block the transaction from going through, the money was transferred. However, after advice from the National Economic Crime Victim Care Unit (NECVCU), Sally was able to convince the bank to refund the money.
Sally said: “This whole experience has been incredibly stressful, for me as well as for my father and it was really hard to approach the subject with him. After he transferred the money, I spoke to him about what happened and I sent him news articles about romance fraud to help him understand this is a common type of scam.
“I didn’t know what support I would get if I reported this, but having received such great advice from the NECVCU, I wish I had reported this earlier. This incident really affected my mental health and it was a huge relief to speak to someone who really understood how they could help both me and my father.”
*Names have been changed
How a typical dating scam works
Scammers will usually target victims on social media platforms, particularly Facebook, or dating apps such as Tinder. They might then try to move the conversation onto another private messaging platform, like WhatsApp.
Typically they will come across as very caring and attentive, messaging back and forth – sometimes over a period of months – to build trust and give the impression that the relationship is genuine. The fraudster may have scoured social profiles to help persuade their victim that they are the perfect match based on shared interests or personal circumstances. Often they will claim to be living or working abroad to explain why they can’t meet in person. They might also invent reasons why they can’t turn their camera on during calls.
Eventually they will start to tell stories about family or legal issues, business problems or medical bills. They might appear reluctant to accept any help at first, or request smaller amounts, but this is all part of the con. Over time they convince their victim to send more and more money.
How to protect yourself from dating scammers
Action Fraud advises people using online dating services to:
Be suspicious of any requests for money from someone you have never met in person, particularly if you have only recently met online;
Speak to your family or friends to get advice;
Perform a reverse image search on profile photos - this can find images that have been taken from somewhere else.
They also advise that you do not:
Send money to someone you have never met in person, allow them access to your bank account or take out a loan for them;
Invest your own money on their advice;
Give them copies of your personal documents, such as passports;
Purchase and send the codes on gift cards from Amazon or iTunes;Receive or send parcels on their behalf, such as laptops or mobile phones.
Signs that someone else might be falling for a romance scam
Family members or friends of online daters can play a crucial role in protecting their loved one from falling victim to a romance scam, according to Action Fraud. Here are some signs to watch out for:
They may be secretive about their relationship or provide excuses for why their online partner has not spoken to them on a video call or met them face-to-face. They could become hostile or withdraw from the conversation when you ask questions about their partner;
They may express very strong emotions and commitment to someone they have only just met;
They have sent, or are planning to send, money to someone they have not met in person. They may take out loans or withdraw from their pension to send money.
How to report a romance scam
If you think you’ve been a victim of fraud, contact your bank immediately and report it to Action Fraud online at police.uk or by calling 0300 123 2040.
In Scotland, victims of scams should report the matter to Police Scotland on the non-emergency number 101.