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We join bank staff protecting victims’ life savings from romance scams | #datingscams | #lovescams | #datingscams | #love | #relationships | #scams | #pof | #match.com | #dating


The 64-year-old man on the phone is becoming increasingly agitated. He’s doing everything in his power to convince Santander’s bank staff to put through a £3,000 transfer to his Brazilian girlfriend in Ghana.

But the bank has blocked all payments from his current account to his girlfriend since November — and won’t budge.

Paul (not his real name) simply cannot fathom why. Time and again, he pleads for the funds to be released, explaining that his beloved desperately needs the money.

Love is blind: Romance scams involve fraudsters luring their prey into a trusting online relationship – and then extorting them for cash

It makes uncomfortable listening, as Money Mail sits in on the call, but there is more to this row than meets the eye.

For Paul is just one of thousands of customers referred to the specialist Santander Break the Spell scams team every month.

This group of ten specially trained fraud staff in Bootle, Merseyside, is tasked with talking to customers suspected of being victims of sophisticated confidence tricksters.

The majority of those referred to the service since September have fallen for romance scams, where fraudsters lure their prey into a trusting online relationship — and then extort them for cash.

Typically, ‘at risk’ customers are identified either by the bank’s payments technology, which monitors for unusual activity on current accounts, or by beady-eyed branch or telephone staff.

The Break the Spell team is sent a case file, with notes about the customer and an option to listen to their previous phone calls with other bank staff.

With background research complete, one of the team will phone the customer to find out more about where they are trying to send money, to whom and why — before deciding whether the payment can go ahead.

Jade, from the Break the Spell team, strongly believes Paul is the victim of a callous romance fraud. With such scams, lonely people are targeted online through social media or dating websites.

The crook gives the impression they have fallen in love and works tirelessly to build up trust, often using fake online profiles with colourful back-stories and photographs stolen from other social media accounts.

Romance fraud is big business — and both men and women are targeted.

Yet despite Jade’s warnings, Paul won’t accept that his ‘girlfriend’ may not be who she says she is. It’s a pattern of behaviour the Break the Spell team has to contend with on a daily basis, Jade says.

Paul has already spent hours trying to convince Jade that his three-year relationship is genuine, and claims to have the photographs to prove it.

That week, he sent Jade an email. She opens it and the picture of a 20-something Brazilian bombshell holding a certificate for gold bars flashes up on her screen.

Safeguarding: Money Mail’s Jessica Beard (right) with Jade from Santander's Break the Spell team

Safeguarding: Money Mail’s Jessica Beard (right) with Jade from Santander’s Break the Spell team

Paul says his girlfriend has inherited 16 gold bars after the death of her parents, but can’t get her hands on them until she has paid the ‘fees for the vault’ in Ghana. That’s why she needs him to send her £3,000 as soon as possible.

As they talk, Jade performs a so-called reverse-image search on Google. This is where you copy and paste an image of a face into Google’s search bar, and it looks for matches elsewhere on the internet.

Almost instantly, Google returns an identical picture of an actress from an adult website, plus links to online forums where people warn the actress’s image has been used before by scammers.

Paul then drops the bombshell that he plans to start a family with his Brazilian girlfriend in the New Year.

He reveals he has been supporting her financially for the past 12 months, sending between £300 and £1,000 on a regular basis. In total, he’s transferred nearly £10,000 of his savings to her bank account.

Santander’s suspicions were raised when staff working at Paul’s local branch found out he had started using food banks because his funds had run so low.

‘The heart leads the head,’ Paul tells Jade, as though it’s a rock-solid case for the defence.

But for Jade, the alarm bells ring even louder. ‘This person clearly isn’t who they say they are and it seems likely that Paul is being coerced,’ she tells me after the call. ‘His story raises all the big red flags, so if it continues, I will consider getting the police involved,’ she adds.

Under the Banking Protocol scheme, trained banking staff can involve the police when they believe criminal activity is taking place and intervention or support is required.

As the conversation goes on, it becomes clear that Paul is being less than truthful about having met his girlfriend face-to-face.

Jade doesn’t doubt him when he says his first contact was via a dating website three years ago, but the rest of the story doesn’t add up.

‘I don’t believe he went to Ghana to meet this woman,’ Jade says. ‘He has no plane tickets, pictures or transactions on his account to prove he ever went there.

‘We have to be lie detectors in this job because customers can be very convincing to get their payments through.

‘It can be frustrating because they sometimes don’t understand that you are trying to help them.’

Tactics: Crooks typically contact victims online and give an impression they have fallen in love and work to build up trust

Tactics: Crooks typically contact victims online and give an impression they have fallen in love and work to build up trust

By the end of the 44-minute phone call — the fifth Jade has had with Paul — he still firmly denies he’s been scammed.

Yet a week after my visit, Jade sends me a text message — at last, Paul has cracked after another four hours of calls.

‘He finally admitted he had never met her or seen her over video and said he believed me!’ her text reads, the exclamation point betraying just how much the breakthrough means to her.

‘He will be cutting contact with her and he’s heartbroken, but I’m so relieved.’

Santander’s Break the Spell operation was set up just under two years ago in response to a huge rise in complex scams. Since April 2021, it has stopped payments worth £3.5 million being made to scammers.

The programme has been so successful that the bank plans to create a second specialist team this year.

Romance scams have become the most common type the team has dealt with in the past two months. Banks say these types of scammers stole £30.9 million in 2021 — a 73 per cent jump in just a year. Action Fraud believes that the true figure for losses to romance scams is closer to £95 million a year.

Jade reveals that the victims she has spoken to have gone to terrifying lengths to help their ‘partners’.

‘One lady sold her home last month to move to Florida to be with a famous wrestler she had supposedly met online. It was only after the sale of the house had gone through that she realised it was a scam.’

Another woman was referred to Jade after she attempted to send £5,000 to her ‘lover’ in Egypt, whom she believed was serving in the U.S. army.

The money was needed to fund his daughter’s surgery in Finland, the man had told her.

Jade says: ‘The victim and I were talking for weeks, and she was getting distressed because he was angry at her for being unable to send the money.

‘She sent me a photo of his daughter in her hospital bed. We found straight away through a reverse-image search on Google that the picture had been lifted from a local newspaper.

‘I broke the news to her and you could hear through the phone the moment that the penny dropped. She was in absolute shock.’

Santander's 'Break the Spell' team is is tasked with talking to customers suspected of being victims of sophisticated confidence tricksters

Santander’s ‘Break the Spell’ team is is tasked with talking to customers suspected of being victims of sophisticated confidence tricksters

By lunchtime on the day of my visit, Jade has already made calls to four different suspected victims of romance scams.

It’s hard not to feel for them, but it’s alarming how staunchly they try to defend the cruel scammers who have won their confidence.

Jade and her colleagues are regularly on the sharp end of rude and aggressive language.

Many of the fraud victims are angry at being stopped from spending their own money as they choose.

‘I have to remind myself that I’m trying to protect them,’ Jade says. ‘Some days are exhausting — especially when it’s difficult to break the spell even though you’ve been speaking to them a few times a week,’ Jade says.

Santander allows workers to join the Break the Spell team only after years of training.

Jade spent five years dealing with complaints from customers who were reporting suspected scams before she joined the team. She then underwent additional training, listening in on calls and learning how to talk customers round when they have been so convincingly duped.

One call during Money Mail’s visit shows just how skilled Jade’s team have to be.

After 33 minutes talking to an elderly man, it’s still unclear whether he’s fallen for a scam or is just involved in a generous church scheme.

The pensioner was referred to Jade when he tried to transfer £900 abroad. He had already sent two other payments, both for more than £800, to an account in Ivory Coast.

The man says the money was raised at his local church for an orphanage and he is using his personal account to make the international transfers.

Jade probes him to try to determine whether this orphanage actually exists.

Has he been to the orphanage? No.

Has he met anyone from it? Yes, a representative to whom he speaks regularly on WhatsApp.

Is he definitely satisfied that this orphanage exists? Yes.

When Jade searches online for the orphanage, she finds it is name-checked by several large global charities.

The pensioner becomes agitated as he starts to fear the money won’t reach the young girls whom he believes are in urgent need of help.

He insists he must send thousands of pounds more as soon as possible.

Jade says: ‘Most of the customers we speak to are good-natured people who just want to help so much that they don’t spot the risks.

‘This [orphanage scheme] could be genuine, but it could also be a scam by an organised crime group. We have to eliminate that risk before we can authorise the payment.’

In the end, the man calls Jade back a week later to say that he has changed his mind. From now on, he will send the money only to registered and trusted charities — a wise move.

Chris Ainsley, head of fraud detection at Santander, says social media has made the bank’s job in stopping confidence tricksters infinitely harder.

‘The problem we have now is that fraudsters post one thing on social media and reach thousands of people.’

However, he admits that banks could be quicker to identify payments and bank transfers to scammers.

Jade says: ‘When you finally make a breakthrough with a customer, it makes the job worthwhile and it makes the harder ones a bit easier to handle.

‘It’s tiring work and it can be hard to switch off. But, ultimately, all I want to do is keep our customers safe.’

j.beard@dailymail.co.uk

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