Romance scams are undoubtedly a particularly cruel form of fraud, preying on people’s need for love and connection - often via dating sites and social media - and exploiting that to steal not just people's money, but their self-esteem and sense of trust.
In an age where finding romance is mostly done online, dating fraud is rife and has only been exacerbated during the pandemic. In the past financial year, Action Fraud received nearly 8,000 reports of romance fraud from individual victims, with reported financial losses of £73.6 million, while UK Finance reported a 20% increase in bank transfer scams linked to romance in 2020, compared to the previous year.
While victims of romance scams are more likely to be older, younger people are affected, too. Of the reports received by Action Fraud in the past year, just over 1000 were made by those aged 20-29, while nearly 1,300 were made by those aged 30-39.
Adding to the pain of being deceived by dating fraud is the stigma and victim-blaming attached. Traditionally, victims of romance fraud have been perceived as naïve, maybe even seen as bringing on their misfortune themselves by being too trusting.
“In the case of romance scamming, there is an element to this label that sounds as if the person who has been scammed has foolishly brought it upon themselves, that they are to blame… In reality, we all live in the hope that a relationship we are in or wanting to embark on is the best thing since sliced bread. At the beginning, we can all see relationships through rose tinted glasses of our hopes and dreams, until the fog of time clears the view,” says Counsellor and Psychotherapist Mou Cameron.
“Any of us could be susceptible to this type of experience or scam, online or offline. It’s not because a person is stupid, weak or desperate that this type of deception happens,” Mou adds.
Romance scams: What are the different types?
As well as operating on dating apps and dating sites, an increasing amount of criminals are running romance scams on social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and even gaming sites.
In 2021, Action Fraud has identified a new trend of investment fraud linked to romance fraud, where victims have been encouraged by someone they’ve met online to invest money in cryptocurrency or foreign exchange trading (forex), but the scheme turned out to be a sham. Action Fraud has received over 100 reports of this new kind of romance fraud between January and March, with reported losses by victims totalling over £2 million.
Romance scams: What are the signs to watch out for?
It’s important to note here, that it can be hard to see red flags when you’re in a new romance and full of hope for what the future might hold.
“The initial excitement of meeting someone can feel intoxicating. A lot of times we can over-ride or dismiss our gut instinct about a situation even though a quiet alarm bell might be sounding in the distance,” says Mou.
She adds that while the temptation can be to throw yourself fully into a new romance, it’s important to take time to examine whether the things your new online acquaintance is telling you seem unrealistic.
“In a potential romance… a little space is required, not to rush in too quickly. The old adage feels important here, if it feels too good to be true…maybe it’s not good enough,” she adds.
That said, there are signs of romance scams you should be aware of. They are:
The person you’ve struck up a relationship with online declaring their love for you quickly, or even talking about relationship milestones like marriage or buying a home together.
The person saying they’re based abroad (often citing military, medical or charity work) and claiming a big step in the relationship will be them returning to be with you. This kind of story paints them as heroic and reliable and gives them an excuse for international dialling codes or poor internet connection.
The person making constant excuses as to why they can’t video chat or meet in person.
The person trying to move the conversation off the platform you met on (as these are more regulated).
The person asking for financial help because of a time-critical emergency that’s also emotive. They’ll give a story that makes them appear vulnerable and may become defensive if their financial requests aren’t met and blame the victim for not averting the crisis.
The person telling you not to talk about the online relationship with friends and family.
Romance scams: How to protect yourself
The majority of online dating sites, social media sites and gaming apps are perfectly safe, but any online platform that allows you to connect with and talk to other people could be targeted by romance fraudsters so it’s important to take steps to protect yourself.
No matter how long you’ve been speaking to someone online and how much you trust them, if you haven’t met them in person, do not do any of these things:
Send them any money.
Allow them access to your bank account.
Transfer money on their behalf.
Take a loan out for them.
Provide copies of your personal documents such as passport or driving license.
Invest your own money on their behalf or on their advice.
Purchase and send the codes on gift cards from Amazon or iTunes.
Agree to receive and/or send parcels on their behalf (laptops, mobile phones etc)
Another way to potentially protect yourself is by talking to trusted people in your life to gain an outsider’s perspective.
“Sharing your new romantic journey with a friend or a person you trust is helpful, especially as they will have a vested interest in your wellbeing and might be able to vocalise the alarm bells that you’ve dialled down in the flush of excitement and hope,” explains Mou.
Romance scams: How to report a crime and get support
If you reach a place where you’ve realised something isn’t right, there are steps you can take to report the person you suspect and get support.
First, challenge the person you’re talking to online. Criminals often get defensive or sever communication when they think they might be found out.
If you’re speaking via an online platform, use the reporting tools many of the sites have to raise the alarm about suspicious behaviour and being asked for money. Reporting their user profile means it can be blocked, which helps protect others.
If you have sent someone money, don’t feel ashamed or embarrassed. You should contact your bank immediately and report it to Action Fraud on 0300 123 2040 or via the website. If you are in Scotland, you can report to Police Scotland directly by calling 101.
On an emotional level, victims might feel shame about what they’ve been through, but Mou points out the blame is always on the perpetrator.
“Romance scamming is abuse. You can’t always see it happening, it’s shape shifting and… that’s exactly how the person doing the manipulating and deceiving wants it to be. Any form of abuse thrives on the person being abused staying quiet out of shame and embarrassment. The only way abuse is stopped in its tracks are for more people to courageously speak up,” she says.
Sometimes, the friends and family of victims can be unsympathetic, adding to an already difficult time for the victim.
“We have a tendency in our society to blame the victim rather than the abuser. Friends and family could go into the mode of ‘you should have done this instead’. I want to emphasise, this could happen to any of us and it is so important that friends and family are supportive rather than finger waggling at the person who has suffered this crime,” Mou says.
At the other side of romance scams are the victims left behind, who not only feel betrayed, but often a sense of loss for the relationship ending so abruptly and traumatically. As well as talking through these feelings with trusted friends and family, accessing a therapist can be beneficial.
“Part of what a therapist provides is a non-judgemental space to explore and support the person. It’s an opportunity to understand the hopes and dreams that were imbued in the relationship and the subsequent pain, loss, shame and betrayal. The ultimate goal being that the person has a better sense of the traumatic experience, of themselves, their self- worth and their patterns of relating to potential love interests. Plus, to think about what they would need next time so that they make choices that feel right for them and not for anyone else,” Mou advises.
You can find more information and support about this issue on Action Fraud’s website.
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