Tips to dodge the online dating cheats
While a sea of red and pink paper Valentines still keeps card shops in business, online dating has become the modern go-to option for many of those looking for love.
Read our article on 'The trust cost of finding love' for the low-down on online dating sites.
But while the number of dating sites has rocketed, so too have the incidences of fraud.
Recent figures from the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau (NFIB) reveal online dating fraud is on the rise, with a 33% increase in fraud cases in 2014, compared to 2013.
Separate figures published at the end of October 2015 showed that in just 12 months, 3,543 people reported that they had been a victim of dating fraud to Action Fraud, with a total financial loss of £33,650,491. Victims frequently lost as much as £10,000.
Romance scams take many different forms, but often the most heart-wrenching cases involve singletons meeting people through internet chatrooms or dating sites. In fact, NFIB findings show that 85% of dating scams in 2014 stemmed from online dating sites or forums.
“Conmen invest a significant amount of time and effort into building a relationship with someone, knowing they can potentially reap a bigger reward by scamming that person out of a lot of money,” says Tony Neate from GetSafeOnline. “We’ve seen cases where people have been speaking to someone online for months - of even years - and have handed over thousands and thousands of pounds in this time.”
As well as being hit financially, many victims have to face the emotional impact of finding out that the person they fell for is just a trickster who wanted their money.
“When someone places a lot of trust and faith in a person who they think they know, they often don’t separate their emotional feelings from rational thinking,” adds Neate. “Criminals will play on this vulnerability.”
Further figures from the NFIB show that more than half (57%) of all reported crimes relating to online dating were by women, with those aged 45 to 55 the most targeted. Conmen often consider older women to be ideal targets, because they are usually wealthier and more vulnerable than their younger counterparts.
For example, just a few months ago, newspapers reported the story of 61-year-old retired British teacher, Judith Stillwell, who handed her Kenyan husband £25,000 from her savings before discovering he was duping more than 40 “lovers” across the world.
“Dating fraudsters are heartless criminals who mostly operate online to manipulate their victims into believing they’ve established a strong emotional bond,” says detective superintendent Pete O’Doherty at the City of London Police. “Often the fraudster will not ask directly for money, preferring to bide their time and build a strong bond with their victim, before ultimately inventing a reason why they urgently need money transferred into their account.”
As well as online dating scams, there are also instances of people being targeted via personal ads.
But while dating scams in their various different guises may be rife, the Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS) receives very few complaints.
“Many people are affected by ‘lonely hearts scams’, yet a lot are too embarrassed to speak up or seek help,” says an FOS spokesperson. “The sad fact is that if your money can’t be recalled by your bank or money-transfer agency, there’s very little you can do to get it back. The key is to report the matter to the police immediately.”
Here we take a look at some of the ways in which you can get scammed – and the steps you can take to protect yourself.
Types of dating scams
In its simplest form, romance fraud usually involves a conman posing as an interested suitor – often claiming to be travelling, living or working abroad, but insisting he will soon be returning to the UK. Through subtle manipulation, the fraudster then persuades his lovestruck victim to send money for a variety of emotive reasons.
One of the most common explanations is that the “suitor” wants to visit his “lover” in the UK, but needs cash to pay the air fare. In some cases, the fraudster may claim to need cash to replace a plane ticket which has been stolen or because his credit card is at its limit.
Ongoing educational courses and visa applications
On occasions, the story may be even more elaborate, with criminals conning victims into paying for educational courses or qualifications to support a visa application.
With this type of scam, victims can end up repeatedly sending money until they become suspicious. In that time, many thousands of pounds may have changed hands.
Some individuals are being tricked into parting with vast sums of money by fraudsters posing as military personnel based overseas who claim they require funds for flights home or to supplement their income before they are paid.
Western Union, which is often used in such scams as a means of transferring money, says there has been a big increase in US military fraud over the past year. In some cases, con artists may state they are serving in Afghanistan, but request that money be sent to Nigeria or Ghana, where they claim their army captain will collect it on their behalf.
Conmen will also cite medical-related reasons for needing money – such as a sudden need for surgery, or a family member urgently requiring hospital treatment.
Scammers may claim financial hardship due to an unfortunate run of bad luck, such as a failed business or a mugging in the street.
Some fraudulent suitors will befriend and flirt with their victim in conversation on an online dating chatroom, and then suggest the conversation should move to a social media site. At this point, the fraudster will invite the victim to an internet video chat and encourage them to perform a sexual act.
The victim is then contacted and informed that the act has been recorded and will be posted on a social media site unless money is transferred. “Consumers must be aware that anything they do on the internet can be recorded and used for malevolent purposes,” warns Peter Barnes, director of global investigations at Western Union. “People should never agree to a video call with someone they don’t know.”
Read 'The 10 most common scams'.
Other telltale signs your online date may be a fraudster
- They want to communicate with you through instant messaging and texts, rather than through the dating website or chatroom where you met. That way they can isolate you away from the security of the dating site.
- They ask lots of questions about you, but don’t tell you much about themselves – such as where they live and work.
- They shower you with compliments, or quickly start calling you by a pet name.
- They use photos where they look like an actor or supermodel.
- Other red flags include military uniform, claiming to be a widower, professing to be a devout Christian, poor spelling and grammar, and inconsistencies in their stories. Also be wary of anyone who tries to move things along too quickly – or who expresses undying love after
- a few weeks, despite never having met you.
How to protect yourself from online dating scams
While most people using dating sites are sincere and honest, it is important that you stay vigilant.
“When using any dating site, you need to exercise caution and take the time to get to know people,” says Neate. “If someone asks to borrow money from you having never met you, you should refuse to do so, no matter what sob story they give.”
The same applies to giving out any credit card or account details online. “This is the case
even if you feel you have grown close to someone via email and phone,” adds Neate. “This person is still largely a stranger to you.”
If you’re in two minds about what to do, consult a trusted friend or relative, as they can view the situation objectively and provide sound advice.
“If you’re unsure about any member of a dating site, you could also contact the site’s customer service team,” says a spokesperson for dating site Toyboy Warehouse, which has an in-house moderation team dedicated to stopping scammers before they have a chance to act. “Staff will be well equipped to investigate whether or not the profile is real.”
If you do feel ready to meet someone in person having chatted to them online, you need to remain on high alert and should arrange to meet for the first few times in a safe place with plenty of people around. You should also tell family and friends where you are going.
If you think you are being targeted – or have been a victim of dating fraud – you should report it to Action Fraud, and also to the website or chatroom operator. You can contact Action Fraud at Actionfraud.police.uk or by calling 0300 123 2040. Also visit GetSafeOnline.org.
More top tips to ensure you’re safe when dating online
- Trust your instincts: if something feels wrong, it probably is.
- Check if the dating site manually approves members and whether it will enforce its policies against inappropriate use.
- Choose a dating site that will protect your anonymity until you choose to reveal personal information, or set up a separate email account that does not include your real name.
- Pick a user name that does not include any personal information. For example, “jane_liverpool” would be a bad choice.
- Do not post personal information on a dating site, and wait until you feel comfortable with an individual before giving them your mobile number, address, or place of work.
- Check the contents of every photo sent to you to see if the backgrounds match up to what the person you have been in touch with has been telling you.
- If you are in doubt about someone, try chatting to them on the phone.That way, you can see if the accent and phone code correspond to the country the person claims to be calling from.
- Be extremely wary about doing things in front of your webcam that could be used against you – such as removing clothes. This applies even if you think you know the other party.
If you’ve have a complaint about a financial service product you have bought but the company you bought it from refuses to resolve your problem after eight weeks, the Ombudsman can help. The Ombudsman will investigate and resolve the matter. The Ombudsman is independent and its service is free to consumers. The Ombudsman may find in the company’s favour but consumers don’t have accept its decision and are always free to go to court instead. But if they do accept an Ombudsman’s decision, it is binding both on them and on the business.
Used by the holder to buy goods and services, credit cards also have a monthly or annual spending limit, which may be raised or lowered depending on the creditworthiness of the cardholder. But unlike charge cards, borrowers aren’t forced to pay the balance off in full every month and, as long as they make a stated minimum payment, can carry a balance from one month to the next, generating compound interest. As the issuing company is effectively giving you a short-term loan, most credit cards have variable and relatively high interest rates. Allowing the interest to compound for too long may result in dire financial straits.