Romance fraudsters are preying on over 50s. How to stay safe | #DatingScams | #LoveScams | #RomanceScans

Romance fraud – where someone is persuaded to give money to a person they’ve never met but believe they’re in a relationship with – has soared by 49% for 55-64 year olds.

According to new data – collected over the last year by Lloyds Bank – the scam is mostly perpetrated online. It’s aimed at people on dating sites, social media and even gaming platforms.

From here, fraudsters use manipulative language to target those looking for love, before eventually convincing them to send money.

While those aged under 65 are the most susceptible to the fraud, the same study found those aged 65-74 lost the most money – an average of £13,123 to the criminals.

How dangerous is romance fraud? 

UK Finance’s Take Five To Stop Fraud campaign was created to protect people from scams such as these. The organisation found 29% of people who had met someone online in the previous 12 months had been asked to give or lend money – without meeting them in person. 

From there, half of them agreed to do so, losing £18.5m in the first six months of 2023.

Lisa Webb, Consumer Law Expert for Which?, said: “Data shows over 55s are more likely to [be a] victim of romance fraud. Which? has previously uncovered romance scammers posing as widowers on social media to attempt to befriend and groom potential victims.” 

Metro Bank’s Head of Fraud & Investigations, Baz Thompson, recalls one 73-year-old customer who lost many thousands to a woman he’d built a relationship with over email and telephone. 

“The first payment request was for a few hundred pounds – he was happy to help as she seemed in genuine need. By the time he started to get suspicious, he had made over 80 payments in less than six months and had lost nearly £57,000.”

The bank was able to help him recover £31,000, but he lost the rest.

How does it happen?

UK Finance’s Fraud and Cybercrime Lead, Paul Maskall, has studied how fraudsters create an emotional bond with their victims before asking them for money.

“People don’t ‘fall for’ this kind of scam, they are emotionally manipulated into it. When you have strong feelings for someone, it is much harder to spot the red flags that something is not right and [the scam] being online gives your intuition less to go on,” Maskall says.

“Once they have established their victim’s trust, the criminal will then claim to be experiencing a problem, such as an issue with a visa, health [problems] or flight tickets and ask for money to help.

“They appeal to people’s human decency. After all, if you love someone, you want to help and look after them. For those who may be lonely or isolated, this emotional manipulation can be particularly effective.”

The criminals may initially only ask for a small amount of money which increases as the demands grow. From there, victims will make nearly nine scam payments to the fraudster on average.

How to stay safe

The charity Independent Age warns people to be wary of anyone they meet online who asks lots of questions – but doesn’t reveal much about themselves.

They’ll often encourage you to steer away from the site where you met and will want to communicate by WhatsApp, email, text or phone instead. 

Be mindful of anyone who is particularly emotional or tells you a hard luck story, is unwilling to meet in person or on video chat and who asks you to keep the relationship secret. Be especially wary if they ask for money.

The charity warns not to send or transfer them any cash, give them access to your bank account, take out a loan on their behalf or give them a copy of your passport or driving licence.

Safety advice from Take Five To Stop Fraud

  • Be suspicious of any requests for money from someone you’ve never met in person, particularly if you have only recently met online.
  • Profile photos may not be genuine, so you should make sure to do your research first. You can perform a reverse image search where you copy the photo and upload it through Google – you should quickly see if the picture has been used elsewhere under another name.
  • Stay on the dating site’s messaging service until you’re confident the person is who they say they are, as these sites have moderation and reporting processes in place to protect daters and remove scammers.
  • Ensure, if you do arrange face-to-face contact, that meetings take place in bright and public spaces, and somebody is aware of where you’re going.

Getting your money back

In the first six months of 2023, UK Finance found banks refunded £11.6 million of the £18.5 million that was stolen by romance scammers – or 63% of the total.

However, the onus is still on customers to check the person they are sending money to is genuine – and to heed any warnings issued by the bank ahead of transferring the money.

The sooner you contact your bank to report a fraud, the better your chances, generally, of getting some of the money back.

Lisa Webb adds: “If you think you’ve been the victim of a scam, you should contact your bank in the first instance, before reporting it to Action Fraud.

“Victims who think they’ve been unfairly refused a refund should contact the Financial Ombudsman Service to ask it to review their case.”

According to Webb, it can often be a struggle for victims to get their money returned. This is because romance scams are an example of what’s called ‘Authorised Push Payment (APP) fraud’, where victims willingly transfer the money themselves, rather than having it directly stolen by the fraudster.

However, a stronger level of protection for consumers against APP fraud is set to be introduced in October 2024 to reflect the fact that victims have been manipulated by criminals.

This will put the pressure on the banks to prove that the customer was fully negligent when they were scammed.

Don’t give up

Romance fraud is a devastating crime that is costing people far more than just their money – but if this is putting you off looking for love or companionship, don’t be disheartened.

Fran McSweeney, Head of National Services at Independent Age, said: “Dating or romance scams are cruel and can be very difficult to deal with. Often, they take time, and the scammer has built up a relationship with the person, so it’s devastating when the deception is discovered.

“It is always right to be wary of scams, but also to take heart in knowing that there are decent, honest and kind people out there. By taking steps to protect yourself against scammers, it can be possible to meet someone special through online dating.”

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