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Lockdown leads to 20% rise in romance scams

·4 min read
Romance scams can leave customers out of love and out of pocket. Photo: Getty Images
Romance scams can leave customers out of love and out of pocket. Photo: Getty Images

“Romance scams,” in which victims are tricked into sending money to criminals who they believe they are in a genuine relationship with, are on the rise ahead of Valentine’s Day. This is especially as online dating sees an increase due to pandemic-related restrictions.

Victims have lost money via bank transfer, money transfer, sending fraudsters gift cards and vouchers or presents such as phones and laptops, and providing them with access to their bank account or card.

There was a 20% increase in these scams between January and November 2020 compared to the previous year, with the total value of these scams rising by 12% to £18.5m ($25.5m), according to UK Finance, a banking and finance industry body.

Katy Worobec, managing director of economic crime at UK Finance, noted that “with the rising use of online dating service users during lockdown, criminals are using clever tactics to exploit people who think they’ve met their perfect partner online.”

“Romance scams can leave customers out of love and out of pocket,” she added.

These scams involve people being tricked into sending money to criminals who go to great lengths to gain their trust and convince them that they are in a genuine relationship.

“They use language to manipulate, persuade and exploit so that requests for money do not raise alarm bells,” UK Finance said in a new report.

These requests might be highly emotive, such as criminals claiming they need money for emergency medical care, or to pay for transport costs to visit the victim if they are overseas.

The average loss per victim reported to UK Finance members was £7,850 ($10,818), “highlighting the significant impact this type of fraud can have on victims’ finances.”

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The trade association has urged the public to be vigilant and look out for friends and family to help keep them safe from such scams this Valentine’s Day.

It said Action Fraud has also seen a rise in reports made by members of the public who have fallen victim to romance fraud in 2020, with total reported losses adding up to over £68m.

The rise in romance scams comes as more people have turned to online dating during 2020 due to social distancing restrictions.

Figures from the Online Dating Association (ODA) estimate that over 2.3 million Brits used dating apps during the first lockdown, with 64% of people surveyed seeing dating apps as a lifeline for those living alone.

“The growth in popularity of online dating is giving criminals more opportunities to exploit and coerce people into parting with their money,” the report said.

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Scammers will often build a relationship with their victims over time and the ODA’s data shows that half (53%) of people surveyed are having longer conversations on dating services during lockdown.

George Kidd, CEO at ODA, said “ODA members work to keep users safe by using human and technology content moderation... Daters should make the most of this secure environment and remember the time online is the beginning of getting to know someone you have never met in person.

“You should never hesitate to report if someone asks you for money, even if they do this outside of the dating service,” he added.

There are many ways people can protect themselves.

Consumers must always take a moment to stop and think before parting with their money or personal information.

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They must keep in mind it’s ok to reject, refuse or ignore any requests. “Only criminals will try to rush or panic you,” the report said.

Profile photos when online dating may not be genuine and performing a reverse image search on a search engine can find photos that have been taken from somewhere, or someone, else.

It is important never to send anyone you have met via online dating any money, transfer money on their behalf, or allow them access to your bank account. You must also never be willing to take out a loan for them, or provide them with copies of personal documents such as passports or driving licenses.

Never invest your own money on their behalf or on their advice, UK Finance warns, nor agree to receive or send parcels on their behalf.

And crucially, consumers must contact their bank immediately if they think they’ve fallen for a scam, and also report it to Action Fraud.

Some signs a friend or family member may be involved in a romance scam include them being secretive about their relationship or providing excuses for why their online partner has not video called or met them in person.

They might become hostile or angry, and withdraw from conversation when asked about their partner. They may also express very strong emotions and commitment to someone they have only just met.

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