When Mary’s husband of 23 years died last May, she was devastated.
The 71-year-old did not expect to find love again, but her children recommended online dating.
She created a profile on Ourtime, a site geared towards over-fifties, and was delighted when she met Paul, an oil rig worker based in Dubai in September.
“I was just grateful for somebody to say how nice I was and how wonderful I was,” Mary, who spoke using a pseudonym, tells i.
“You get in a terrible rut: most of your friends are married, you can’t go out with them and you get very down really.
“Then somebody suddenly comes along and says how lovely you are and is so complimentary. You just carry on and you think ‘oh God, there is another life maybe at my age’.”
Soon Paul started asking her for money. Over the course of several months, Mary, a retired hotel owner from Surrey, ended up giving him a total of £170,000 – which she thought was a loan.
But after clearing out her life savings and stripping her accounts of all available funds, earlier this year her children helped her realise she had been preyed upon by a romance scammer, a type of fraud which is growing in the UK.
“I was hoping he was coming home once he’d done all these things and I thought perhaps there was a life to go on with,” she says.
Mary initially talked to Paul – whose name has been changed to protect her anonymity – on the Ourtime platform but he quickly wanted to move their communications to WhatsApp, which she started using for the first time. He called frequently and sent her messages but they did not see each other on video or in person.
He told her he was temporarily working in Dubai on oil rigs but wanted to come home to stay with her.
Paul said he had moved to Britain from Germany and was living in Surrey.
His first request for money was around November after he had gone to the Dubai airport but was blocked from leaving the country because he had not paid taxes on some materials he bought for the oil rigs, which he sent her a picture of.
Paul asked her for a loan, promising to pay her back. He initially asked for around £120,000 but due to transfer limits set by Mary’s bank, NatWest, she started paying him in increments of up to £20,000.
Once he received payments, he told her he had been paid by the Dubai government in gold bars and in order to come back to the UK with them, he would need more money to pay taxes.
“I know Dubai is very odd so I just believed him,” Mary says. “He sent me a picture of these two gold bars on his bed with a picture of me in the middle.”
He even coached her on what to tell the bank so she could move the funds. Mary recalls being grilled at a bank branch and telling staff the payment was being made to her sister – lies she said made her feel “dreadful”.
It was around the beginning of the year that her sons became concerned.
They asked her why she was on the phone constantly and looked really unhappy.
She told them she had given Paul money. Suspecting something fishy, one of her sons searched Google using Paul’s profile picture – called a “reverse image search” – and found it had been used to represent all sorts of different people.
They asked Paul to send a new picture of himself showing where he was at the time, and he sent over an old image they’d discovered on the internet.
It became clear to Mary that she’d been scammed and she got in touch with NatWest, which investigated the case and gave her a full refund.
“I was very disappointed, because I thought there might have been a life together,” she says.
Her son even got in touch with the man whose picture Paul had used, who was living in America and made TV appearances as a health expert. The man said he was aware of fraudsters using his photograph online.
“I was more embarrassed with my boys that I was stupid enough to send all that money,” she says. She feels “incredibly lucky” to have got her money back because not all fraud victims do.
Mary reported Paul to the police but does not know where he really lives or if he’ll ever be caught.
Even though she stopped sending him money in January, he has continued calling and messaging her from various unrecognised numbers. He rang her once to say, “What have you done to me? You’ve ruined me.”
He told her his banks had started investigating him and wanted to know if she had reported him to the police. She lied and said she hadn’t.
“The last message I had from him frightened me because it said, ‘I’m coming to see you very soon and tell you everything’,” she says. She never gave him her address but fears he may have tracked her down.
Mary did not realise how prevalent scams were and has since become much more cautious when online dating. NatWest recommends remaining alert to fake pictures and information and says “alarm bells should ring” if people repeatedly refuse to meet in person or speak on the phone.
Mary has Googled potential suitors since then and discovered others were also lying to her about who they were and what they did for a living. “There’s scams there without even people asking you for money,” she says.
According to banking trade body UK Finance, romance scam cases rose by 29 per cent last year compared with the previous year.
Some £18.5m was paid to romance scammers in the first half of 2023, up from £14.6m during the same period in 2022.
More than three-quarters of all scams originate on apps and websites, dwarfing other sources such as email and telecommunications.
Stuart Skinner, fraud expert at NatWest, says romance scams can have a “devastating” impact on victims.
“Financial losses are significant and so too is the emotional impact of losing a relationship believed to be real,” he tells i. “Social media and dating platforms need to do more to eliminate fraudulent activity and stop these criminals.”
Meta, which owns WhatsApp, did not respond to a request for comment.
An Ourtime spokesperson said its members’ safety was its “highest priority”, adding: “We have a dedicated team who monitor security on the site, through both AI, in the form of machine learning technology, and human checks, to identify any potentially unusual behaviour.
“This includes moderating all new photo uploads and any updates to descriptions … We are constantly reviewing our safety methods and we proactively communicate safe dating advice to our members and within our platform.” The company said it has a prominent “report this profile” function.