Several years after her husband died, Tina felt ready to move on with her life. Encouraged by her friends, she joined an online dating site for the over-50s, and was approached by Andrew.
A handsome widower with silver hair and a broad smile, he said had lost his wife at around the same time. They formed a close bond and were soon exchanging phone messages every day, swapping photos of their families and making plans to meet when he returned from working overseas.
The connection felt real — but the photos were stolen, used to create a fake profile. Tina was not only heartbroken, but financially broken — over the course of their online relationship, she’d been persuaded to lend “Andrew” more than £80,000.
The ugly truth is that romance scams have soared during the pandemic as millions of lonely people turn to online dating, perhaps for the first time.
Romance fraud increased by 38 per cent in 2020, according to the latest data from banking trade body UK Finance, with nearly 3,000 reported cases. Over £21m was lost to scammers, a 17 per cent year-on-year increase, with the average loss per victim topping £7,000.
Experts believe this is the tip of the iceberg. Many scams go unreported as the shame of falling victim is so great, and the chances of getting your money back so low.
Criminals and their victims are often in different continents, but the ease of smartphone messaging using photos and videos lifted from unlocked social media accounts makes this easy to disguise. Lockdown restrictions have been the perfect excuse for not meeting up IRL (in real life) — previously, working abroad, or being in the armed forces were common reasons.
However, awareness of this heartless crime is being boosted by a spate of documentaries, reality TV shows and films — and there are growing calls for legal reforms and tougher online checks to better protect vulnerable consumers.
Tina’s story was featured on the BBC series For Love or Money this week. Over-55s clearly offer rich pickings for criminals as they’re more likely to have pensions and property assets to be plundered. However, the launch of Catfish UK, a spin-off of the hugely popular US film and reality series, shows people of any age, gender or sexual orientation can be targeted.
Catfishing — luring someone into an online relationship by creating a fake profile — is not in itself a crime. The MTV series (you can watch it via Now TV or Amazon Prime) shows countless examples of women who are tricked into sending intimate photos to seemingly attractive men they’ve met online. When tracked down and confronted by the show’s presenters, the perpetrators turn out to be nothing like their profile pictures, which have been harvested online.
The first episode of Catfish UK featured Emma, a single parent in Brighton, who had been ghosted by online boyfriend Harlan after she refused requests to lend him money. A simple reverse image search of his profile picture found photos taken from the real life Facebook account of a naval officer had been used to set up fake profiles on dating sites across Europe, with plenty of victims persuaded into parting with thousands of euros.
As the sums at stake are large, scammers are prepared to invest a lot of time in getting to know their victims and establishing trust. They can exchange messages for months before asking for money, and use elaborate excuses to string them along — for years, in some cases.
UK Finance statistics show the average victim of a romance scam is tapped five times before they realise they’ve been conned. Distressingly, many of the victims who agree to appear on TV shows still desperately want to believe that their scam relationship is real.
The time elapsed makes it harder to reclaim this money, but more victims who challenge their banks over liability for the losses are now being refunded.
UK banks adopted a voluntary code in 2019 to refund those who fell victim to fraud through no fault of their own. Before this, just 6 per cent of sums lost to romance fraud were ever returned. The latest figure is 38 per cent — a considerable increase.
Unsurprisingly, banks are adamant that online platforms must do more to prevent this type of crime. “We are seeing a worrying rise in online and technology-enabled scams that use digital platforms to target victims directly,” says Katy Worobec, head of economic crime at UK Finance, which is urging the government to use the upcoming online safety bill to ensure platforms do more to protect consumers.
“Taking down scam adverts on search engines, removing fake profiles on online dating websites and tackling fraudulent content on social media,” are three urgently-needed actions, Worobec says.
As TV documentaries such as Catfish show, performing a “reverse image search” on a profile photo takes seconds, and often reveals multiple dating profiles in different names, and sometimes explicit scam warnings from other victims. Why shouldn’t the online dating sites be obliged to perform these searches to weed out rogue profiles?
Because criminals swiftly move conversations with victims offline, the dating websites say they’re not responsible for what happens next — and even as online fraud skyrockets, there was a notable absence of scam warnings on the homepages of those I scrolled through this week.
By contrast, banks are ramping up warning messages (if you transfer payments via a banking app, you will no doubt have noticed). Nationwide requires customers to complete a “payment purpose” screen, with a tailored scam warning to suit.
After I stated that a transfer was for a friend or family member, the app asked: “Been asked to send money to someone you’ve never met? Talk it over with someone you trust first.” Customers must then click “I’m happy to continue” or “stop now”.
I am interested to see what impact these warnings will have on either preventing crime, or, sadly, more likely, on reducing banks’ compensation payments.
Meanwhile, far greater sums are lost to investment fraud — £135m last year. I note that Nationwide’s app now has a direct link to the FCA’s “scam warning” list and urges customers to check it before proceeding with any investment transfer.
But will they? The Financial Conduct Authority launched a consultation on high-risk investments this week, stating that tick box risk warnings were “perceived as white noise to many investors and often do not convey the genuine possibility of an investment loss”.
Heartless souls might think the victims of romance fraud are foolish, but I think baring their souls on TV is brave and a more effective deterrent than any warning message. If you or anyone you know has recently started online dating, urge them to watch any of the shows mentioned — or the brilliant Netflix film Only the Animals, which conveys the same message in an artier format.
Claer Barrett is the FT’s consumer editor: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter @Claerb; Instagram @Claerb