Online dating scams: how to spot fraudsters and protect yourself
With one of the highest divorce rates in the EU, finding and maintaining love is getting even more challenging for Brits - which explains why 6 million of us are taking to dating websites in search of their perfect partner.
But there are risks in online dating, as the tale of one woman who lost £19,000 falling victim to scammers reveals. %VIRTUAL-SkimlinksPromo%
A study last year revealed that more than one third of people who married in the US between 2005 and 2012 met online, and half of those met on dating sites.
The latest figures reveal that the UK isn't far behind, with 5.7 million people visiting dating sites every month. Globally, one in five relationships now starts online.
In terms of online daters, the male to female ratio on most sites is around the 50:50 mark and the number of older daters (50+) has become a real growth market.
The industry is now so important to the UK economy that the Office of National Statistics recently added online dating to its basket of goods and services to calculate UK inflation rates.
The internet is full of stories describing happy marriages which started with the click of a mouse, there are also a number of horror stories out there.
Get Safe Online and the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau recently released new figures highlighting that online dating fraud in the UK costs £24.5 million per year, with over 2,800 online dating related crimes being reported to the police in 2013 alone.
As older generations begin to embrace online dating, a lot of those using the sites are not particularly tech savvy and risk falling into the traps of scammers - 55% of all reported crimes came from 40-59 year olds and 63% from females.
Although the average amount lost is £8,750 per person, 16% (457) of reported victims parted with £10,000 or more, with 49 people reporting to have lost more than £100,000 and one unfortunate victim lost a whopping £850,000 looking for love online.
The top five countries where fraudsters purport to be from are England, followed by the United States, Nigeria, Ghana and Russia.
According to police reports, most dating scams stem from online dating websites or forums, whereby victims are duped by criminals using fake personal profiles. Once these suspects have gained the trust of their victims, they begin to request money for various false eventualities.
This could be anything from a medical problem for either themselves or a family member that requires substantial funding, to them claiming to be military personnel based overseas who require funds for flights home or early discharge from the forces.
In other instances, as the online relationship develops, the exchanges become more intimate and the victims might be asked to share intimate pictures of themselves or perform sexual acts in front of a webcam. These images or videos are then used by the criminals to blackmail the victim into handing over money.
The soldier scam
One unlucky lady (who wishes to remain anonymous) lost over £19,000 to a ring of criminals posing as a legitimate online dater.
The 50-year-old mother was persuaded by her daughter to join an online dating site, having been divorced for 15 years. She was soon contacted by a US Soldier based out in Afghanistan, who said he was using the site to try and meet someone before finishing his tour of duty.
After making contact, they started talking to each other on the site regularly and he soon asked for alternative ways of contacting her via text and direct email. In total, he sent over 700 messages via these channels over the course of their online relationship.
After a while, he asked her if she would be able to send him £10 so he could buy a phone card as he didn't have access to his bank account while he was out in Afghanistan. A little while later he asked for another £10 and then £20 for phone calls. Soon after that, he asked if she would be able to transfer £200 into a friend's bank account as he still didn't have access to his bank details.
He told her that he was very senior in the military and a likely terrorist target so it must be kept confidential.
This happened a few times but the amounts got bigger and soon he was asking for up to £700. He told her that he had made her his main beneficiary in case anything happened to him and that as soon as he was out of the army in a month or so, the army would fully reimburse her. What he then needed was money to cover is plane ticket home.
He told her because he was so senior in the army and a likely terrorist target, he would need to take an indirect route back with lots of stopovers and this would cost in excess of £6,000. But for her to cover this, the army needed to see proof of her identification to confirm she was able to be trusted and to ensure all the right paper work was in place. He asked her to send scans of her passport and driving license. This all needed to be done suddenly and urgently, within three days.
She then transferred the money and they sent her copies of the tickets, airline booking forms with arrival times and dates. He later contacted her to say the flights needed to be changed for security reasons and he would need another £6,500 to cover it. This happened once more, with him asking for another £7,000. Again, it needed to be done suddenly and urgently, within three days.
He was supposed to be landing in the UK on 19th November 2013 but just before the flight was set to leave, he contacted her to say he was stuck and would need a further £29,000 to cover travel and costs. This time he needed the money really urgently.
Anonymous panicked because she genuinely believed he was stuck en route back and in danger.
But, at this stage she didn't have any more money left in her savings account. Worried, she told her daughter hoping she might be able to help. Her daughter immediately suspected it was a scam and went online to research similar scams. They found word for word documents available online, warning that they were being conned by criminal groups as part of an online scam.
They reported the incident to the police, who are currently looking into the scam. They have managed to trace part of it back to a woman in the UK but understand that she is working as part of a wider network. Because the money was sent as cash transfers, nobody is liable for the fraud and she has lost over £19,000.
The money was all her savings put aside to support her with healthcare following an accident that stopped her walking for 12 months a few years earlier. She described the whole thing as 'utterly soul destroying' and claims it has 'ruined her life'. She doesn't believe she will ever be able to trust anyone again and feels totally hurt and humiliated.
In order to avoid falling victim to a similar scam, users need to be aware of the dangers of online dating and be extra vigilant when using internet dating sites and mobile apps.
Tony Neate, CEO of Get Safe Online commented: "There's nothing better than meeting someone special and falling in love and online dating sites are a great way to do this. Unfortunately, there are groups of people out there that want to take advantage of this for their own ends. It's upsetting to see that online daters are losing so much money to romance fraud, especially the individual who lost £850,000. The actual figure is likely to be much more though, as we strongly believe that this type of fraud is the most under reported as people are just too embarrassed to come forward. We're not saying don't go on these sites, we're just urging people to stay vigilant and if you spot any of the tell tale signs we've highlighted, definitely let your head rule your heart!"
How to spot a fraudster
• They want to communicate with you through instant messaging and, texts, rather than through the dating website or chat room where you met.
• They ask you lots of questions about yourself but don't tell you much about themselves.
• They quickly start calling you by a pet name or use endearing terms such as 'darling'.
• They don't answer basic questions about where they live and work.
• Their profile picture is too perfect – for example they look like an actor or Miss World titleholder. Or else they have no profile photo at all.
• They start asking you to send them money using a number of different scenarios such as:
o Claiming to be military personnel based overseas who require funds for flights home or early discharge from the forces.
o Citing medical related issues they need money for such as a sudden need for surgery, either for the fraudster or the fraudster's family member.
o They've arranged to visit you but need money to pay travel costs.
If you spot any of these tell-tale signs then cease contact and report the user to Action Fraud.
Detective Superintendent Pete O'Doherty at the City of London Police said: "As more and more people go online in search of new friendships and relationships the last thing they may expect is to be targeted and exploited by calculating criminals. Unfortunately for some this will be their ultimate experience of internet dating."
"Using these websites is still a safe and fun way to meet people but it is very important to be aware of the warning signs that may indicate a new friend is not all that they seem. Keeping these in mind when you go online will ensure you can spot any fraudsters coming your way and are instead able to focus on those who legitimately want to win your heart."
Tips for staying safe online
• Trust your instincts - if you think something feels wrong, it probably is.
• Choose a site that will protect your anonymity until you choose to reveal personal information and that will enforce its policies against inappropriate use.
• Be sure to run a Google image search on the photos in profiles you receive, to ensure they have not been stolen to create a fake profile.
• Do not post personal information, such as your phone number and address, on dating sites.
• Never send money or give credit card or online account details to anyone you don't know and trust.
• Wait until you feel comfortable with an individual before telling them things like your phone number, place of work or address.
• Be extremely wary about removing clothes or doing other things in front of your webcam that could be used against you - even if you think you know the other party.
• Use a dating site that offers the ability to email prospective dates using a service that conceals both parties' true email addresses.
• Set up a separate email account that does not use your real name.
• Make sure your phone number is 'blocked' to people you contact on dating sites.
• Pick a user name that does not include any personal information. For example, "joe_glasgow" or "jane_liverpool" would be bad choices.
• Finally, meet for the first few times in a public place with plenty of people around and always let a friend or family member know where you'll be.
If you think you have been a victim of fraud you should report it to Action Fraud, the UK's national fraud reporting centre by calling 0300 123 20 40 or by visiting www.actionfraud.police.uk. For further advice on how to stay safe online go to www.GetSafeOnline.org.
Remember, if you are looking for love online, take the necessary steps to protect yourself from fraudsters.
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