Men in their twenties hit hardest by romance fraud | #DatingScams | #LoveScams | #RomanceScans

Scammers cast their nets far and wide, but police data suggests more young men are falling prey to dating scams, while women tend to report higher losses.  

Romance fraudsters (also known as catfish) typically hide behind fake profiles on dating sites, social media and other online forums to establish contact then spend weeks or even months grooming their victims before asking for ‘help’ or suggesting investment ‘opportunities’ to line their own pockets. 

Here we uncover their tactics and the common lies they peddle, before sharing the seven signs that you – or someone you care for – is dating a romance scammer. 

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Reporting romance fraud

Due to the nature of a romance scam, victims can often be too nervous or embarrassed to report the scam so it’s difficult to gauge the true scale of the problem. 

A recent report by UK Finance, the trade association for the banking industry, said that bank customers lost £18.5m (across 2,120 cases) to romance scams during January to June 2023, up 26% compared with the same period in 2022. 

Action Fraud – the national reporting centre for fraud and cybercrime in England, Wales and Northern Ireland – puts losses at more than double this, totalling £43.4m (4,109 cases) over the same period. 

Action Fraud’s data points to other trends too. The last time Which? dived into the data in 2022, females (48%) were more likely to report dating scams than males (41%). But in the past 13 months this has reversed, with most reports of dating scams came from males (48%) rather than females (40%). 

Younger males aged 20-29 filed the most reports overall (1,200), followed by females aged 50-59 (830), yet average losses tend to be higher for females (£13,000) than males (£7.400). 

Where do romance fraudsters lurk?

Many romance fraudsters start with messages or friendship requests on social media and dating websites or apps, so it’s sensible to think twice about any contact from strangers you encounter online. 

For instance, Which? previously uncovered how romance scammers target vulnerable people on charity-backed Facebook pages for people discussing mental health, bereavement and ageing.

Those who have experienced a recent break-up, divorce, or bereavement may be particularly vulnerable, although Jim Winters, Nationwide’s Director of Economic Crime, told Which? that anyone can be targeted: 

‘All sorts of online forums can be used to create a friendship; it doesn’t need to be a specific dating site. However, these are only the starting point for conversations as criminals will always aim to get them off these sites to communicate via text/WhatsApp for example. They will try to strike up a friendship with the victim to create an opportunity where they can appear to have money troubles whereby the victim will often offer financial assistance, often without a direct request being made.’

  • Find out more: how to protect yourself on dating websites and apps

Common lies used by romance scammers

Experts say there is a clear link between romance fraud and coercive control, more often associated with domestic abuse. Romance fraudsters fabricate jobs (usually those that conveniently keep them abroad such as a soldier, medic, or oil-rig worker), family tragedies and illnesses, using clever language and false intimacy to manipulate victims. 

They may ask for sensitive information or key documents such as copies of victims’ driving licences and passports to commit identity fraud, or ask for sexually explicit photos so they can later threaten to expose them to family and friends.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in the US analysed over 8,000 romance fraud reports to expose the most common lies used by these scammers:

  • Someone close to the scammer is sick, hurt or in jail 
  • The scammer can teach you how to invest
  • The scammer claims to be in the military and far away
  • The scammer needs help with an important delivery
  • The scammer has never met the victim but wants to talk about marriage
  • The scammer claims to have come into some money or gold
  • The scammer works on an oil rig or ship 
  • The scammer claims you can trust them with your private pictures

Sending money to romance fraudsters

Criminals rely on anonymity to evade authorities so they may try to persuade victims to send money outside of the UK or request that they buy gift cards from retailers such as Amazon, Google Play or iTunes.

Nationwide said that most of the large romance scams it sees involve sending funds overseas, using foreign exchange apps and money transfer services. When the transfer is to a UK-based account, it is often just to transfer funds to an individual who is prepared to make an international payment. This could be to a money mule or an earlier, compliant victim who has exhausted their own funds.

Cryptocurrency apps also feature in many fraud cases, so much so that UK banks such as Chase, Starling and NatWest now block or limit bank transfers to cryptocurrency exchanges due to the associated safety risks. 

  • Find out more: one in five fraud victims send money via cryptocurrency 

7 signs that you’re dating a scammer

  1. Their profile is too good to be true: most legitimate profiles have a variety of photos but fraudsters are likely to use a few attractive stock images or photos copied from other people’s profiles. Use a reverse image search tool to see if any images have been used anywhere else on the internet. These tools won’t catch all fakes though, so watch out for other red flags. 
  2. They want to switch platforms quickly: fraudsters will typically try to move the conversation away from reputable websites or apps as soon as possible, in case their profiles are being monitored. They may suggest you continue chatting by text, social media, email or another messaging service such as Google Hangouts.
  3. They try to establish an emotional connection quickly: experts say there is a clear link between romance fraud and coercive control. They may fabricate family tragedies, illness or other dramatic events to create an emotional connection quickly. You may be encouraged to keep things a secret from friends and family. 
  4. You never meet them in person: promising to meet up and cancelling is a red flag, as is finding any reason to avoid going on camera. They often claim to be living or working abroad, eg as a soldier, a medic, or an oil-rig worker. They may send you a copy of a stolen passport to ‘prove’ their identity. Even if they do agree to a face-to-face video call, this could also be faked, by stealing genuine video clips from someone else’s social-media profile or even using artificial intelligence to create ‘deepfakes’ (doctored video and audio).
  5. They ask for money or gifts: it’s only a matter of time before a romance fraudster finds a way to ask you for money, expensive presents or preloaded gift cards (eg from Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, or Steam). They may only ask for small sums initially, but requests can quickly escalate. Common tactics include claiming they have urgent bills to pay, travel and visa costs, or health issues to convince you to help.
  6. They pitch an ‘easy’ investment ‘opportunity’: another tactic is to offer you supposed investment or trading tips. Having established trust, they switch the conversation and claim they can help you make some easy money. 
  7. They ask to use your bank account: romance fraudsters may try to turn you into a ‘money mule’, by making up an excuse to transfer money into your bank account and out again. Some romance scams involve a network of victims transferring money to each other, unaware that each of them is being used for money laundering and therefore committing a crime.

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