With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, some people will be checking out dating websites and social media looking for love. But romance scammers could also be lying in wait to cynically con people into handing over their cash.
Rom-cons can mean big payouts for fraudsters, which is why they may spend weeks – or even months – “grooming” their victim before asking for money. Once the fraudster believes their victim has developed an emotional attachment, this can be a trigger point for requests for money to be made, according to HSBC UK, which saw romance scams worth nearly £6 million attempted across last year.
The cases the bank dealt with remained consistent throughout the year, with between one and two dozen romance scams uncovered each month. Across the whole of 2023, the average value of a romance scam was approaching £30,000, according to HSBC UK’s figures.
David Callington, HSBC UK’s head of fraud says: “Romance scams do not just happen around Valentine’s Day, we see cases of innocent people who are looking for love being scammed all-year round. It often takes many months before a scammer shows their true colours, asking for money to pay for what can be quite outlandish reasons.
“There are common factors that should raise serious red flags – requesting money in the first place, being asked to lie to your bank and any payment request is made with absolute urgency and dire consequences if it isn’t made. These scammers are experts in emotional manipulation, tapping into the kind nature of their victims with no concern about the financial or emotional impact of their actions.”
Often, victims lose much more than money, as they believe they are in a committed relationship with the person they are talking to. In some cases, fraudsters may also persuade people to send explicit images, which they could then use to blackmail the person they have been talking to into handing over money.
Criminals will use fake profiles, with images stolen from elsewhere – so it could be worth doing a reverse image search to check whether a photo actually originates from someone else. Scammers may even try to misuse celebrities’ profiles to lure people in.
Last October, Nottinghamshire Police warned that it had received reports of romance fraud involving people impersonating celebrities to “catfish” others into handing over money. Romance scammers may also make promises that big sums of cash await.
They may claim they need money up-front in order to release funds, or suggest an “investment opportunity” that their victim should pay into.
People can visit www.fca.org.uk/scamsmart on the Financial Conduct Authority’s website to help avoid pension and investment scams.
Here are some red flag reminders from HSBC UK for warning signs to look out for when dating online:
1. Rapid emotional attachment
While some scammers may take their time, others may try to progress relationships very quickly online.
2. Avoiding meeting face-to-face
Scammers often avoid in-person interactions. Be cautious if your online date consistently makes excuses to meet or delays face-to-face encounters.
3. Asking for money
Scammers may fabricate emergencies or hardships to manipulate your emotions. Do not send money to someone you’ve only met online.
4. Being encouraged to lie to your bank
A scammer will often ask you to lie to your bank to give them a better chance of the payment not causing suspicion. Scammers will often coach their victim in how to respond to questions that may be asked. But telling the truth gives the bank the best chance of protecting your money – and you receiving money back if you do end up being the victim of a scam.
5. Inconsistencies in what you are told
Pay attention to the information shared. Scammers may use different personas across different victims, with conflicting details.
6. Refusal to video chat
If your online connection consistently avoids video interactions, it could be a red flag.
7. High-pressure tactics
Scammers often use urgency or emotional manipulation to pressure victims into quick decisions. Take your time and remain sceptical of requests that seem overly urgent.
8. Unrealistic photos
Be cautious if the person’s online photos appear overly-polished or seem too good to be true. Scammers often use stolen images from other profiles.
9. Being asked for a lot of personal information
It’s natural for people starting a relationship to want to get to know each other better – but scammers will be after your information in addition to your money. Avoid sharing sensitive information, such as your address or financial details, with someone you’ve only met online.
10. Feeling caught up in the romance
Stay vigilant, trust your instincts and verify information to protect yourself from falling victim to romance scams. You could also sound out friends and family members to get a second opinion from people you trust.