Romance fraud: I don’t want to scare you; there are people using dating sites and apps who want to scam you.
Call it what you want. Romance fraud. Online dating fraud. Confidence trick. Catfishing. Online scam. It’s all fraud.
In a vaguely similar area, ‘findom’, or financial domination, also seems to be increasing. This is where someone purports to be a Master, and plays on the idea that some people get excited to be under their control. Some people end up paying them money because it is a way of feeling dominated. Findom seems more of a softer, more acceptable, grey area compared to a standard romance fraud (because there hopefully is consent involved, and is it fraud?), but it could put someone in financial difficulty, just like romance fraud.
This article isn’t just a technical tip. It includes a story about a friend. It warns about how easy it is for a scammer to suck you into their fraud.
My friend ‘Brian’ (not his real name) is an older gay man. Brian is intelligent, kind, thoughtful and is considerate to others. A long-standing volunteer, he is a bit lonely and not very technically minded. He had a profile on an online dating site, and has lost several thousand pounds due to a romance scam. He has a handful of people around him who all say it is a scam. But the scammer used an elaborate and over-complicated story to trick him. Brian still seems to hope is true. I also wanted it to be true for him.
Discovering the romance fraud scam
I went over to his place. Brian showed me one email, and carefully explained the unlikeliness of the story. There were holes in the story. The English used was basic, with lots of grammatical errors – not consistent with someone who was meant to have a Master’s degree from a UK university, or from someone else who was meant to be a practising solicitor. Yes, a ‘solicitor’ somehow got involved, complete with incorrect contact details. Photos were provided to demonstrate that the story was real. Photographs of an airline document, and scans of official documents that somehow should ‘prove’ that they were real people. I could work out that one document was fake, and the logic behind needing to give my friend a copy of a driving certificate and passport baffling.
I then saw the Skype chats that had happened. Never video calls. Over four months, this is a huge warning sign from a person meant to be in his late twenties. So no video chats or webcam chats. But lots of in-depth Skype chats, with over the top total declarations of love, that in the real world would bring a little bit of sick to the back of your throat. I thought between Brian’s other friends and me, we’d persuaded him not to contact the scammer again.
Just to be sure
The week after he paid the person another £200 because he finally wanted “just to be sure” it was a scam or not. My friend no longer has enough money for his own rent.
The romance fraud scammer has dominated Brian’s life over the last few months. He has been on tenterhooks over the exploits of a person he has never met who has expressed undying love (literally) and has somehow failed on multiple attempts to travel to see him.
I am writing this because I hope that Brian’s experience might just help someone else.
TIP: The external links haven’t been prettified. So you have the option to either click on the link or retype the link into the address bar of your browser (e.g. Chrome, Firefox, Edge, etc). A link does not always go to where you’d expect it: bbc.co.uk could go to bigboycock.co.uk or Iwanttobescammed.com
This tip includes webpages and emails. In an email, always be careful when clicking links. They may not go to where you expect them to.
Exploiting people looking for love
City of London Police’s Commander Chris Greany, said: “Romance fraudsters are using every method available to exploit people looking for love – including dating websites, social media, and direct emails. These heartless criminals will specifically target those who they deem to be vulnerable and most likely to fall for their scams. Our intelligence tells us that people aged 50-59 are the most likely to become a victim of dating fraud and therefore need to be especially careful when going online in search of a partner.
“Key advice to follow which will help you stay safe includes never sending funds to someone you have never met. If you’re in two minds always consult with a trusted friend or family member who will be able to view the situation objectively and provide another opinion on the situation.
“It is also very important that if you think you are being targeted or have been a victim of dating fraud to report to Action Fraud. Sharing this information will help us identify and track down these heartless criminals who have absolutely no regard for people’s emotional or financial well being.”
Romance fraud – trust and rapport
According to Police Scotland, all frauds require the offender to establish trust and rapport with the victim. In romance fraud, the victim believes there to be a genuine relationship. Techniques include attempts to build rapport with and gain the trust of the victim by claiming to adhere to the same religious faith or spiritual beliefs and articulating an intense desire for and attraction to the victim.
Phases of a romance fraud scam normally tend to follow this pattern:
- The victim wants to find an ideal partner
- The scammer presents the ideal profile to the victim
- The grooming process
- The sting (crisis) – where the scammer needs money from the victim
- Continuation of the scam
- Potential sexual abuse
Except for the sexual abuse, all of the above happened to my friend Brian. He carefully described his life and interests in his profile. It was easy for the scammer to reflect some of this back, demonstrating that he was an ideal potential partner.
Grindr has safety tips. These include initially not sharing your contact details, not rushing into things, tell a friend where you’re meeting, and when you’re coming back, blocking and reporting people using the Grindr block and report features. Guys with the diamond emoji in their bio or similar ones such as pound signs or bags of coins mean you may have to pay to spend time with them. https://help.grindr.com/hc/en-us/articles/1500009290262-Safety-tips
Men’s Health has a useful guide to make hookups safer. These include making sure you have a picture of him. Consider talking with them before meeting. Maybe video call them (e.g. using FaceTime, Skype or WhatsApp etc), and share your location with a friend. They suggest using an app that has mandatory photo verification. See https://www.menshealth.com/sex-women/a28689066/grindr-hookup-safety/
Pink News also has a useful list of tips to stay safe on dating apps. https://www.pinknews.co.uk/2016/11/23/15-ways-you-can-stay-safe-on-grindr-and-other-dating-apps/
All these are worth looking at, but they are general safety tips that we all ought to consider. For a list of more specific anti scamming tips, please continue on, dear reader.
1 Picture Perfect
Their profile picture may be too perfect – for example, they look like an actor or Miss World titleholder. It’s possible that a man is into you who could be a contender on Love Island. You don’t know what Love Island is, but do remember Cilla Black’s Blind Date from 1985. Just saying, be realistic. Be a bit wary when you get messages from your perfect person.
For ‘verification,’ the scammer may even provide you with a link. You may be asked to spend a pound or two to register and verify using this link. It really won’t hurt if we are talking about safety, it’s argued by them. But the scammer then has your name, address and bank card details.
Don’t be sucked into a series of pictures from someone. They can be easily obtained from a completely innocent person’s Facebook account, or dating profile.
Google Reverse Image search can help you work out if someone has stolen the pictures on their profile, or is pretending to be someone else. Check out https://www.lgbtcomputergeek.co.uk/google-reverse-image-search
2 Soldier porn
This one is similar to the above. The profile picture looks like they are a soldier, a marine, etc. Or a soldier porn actor. I’ve had someone say they were on a peacekeeping mission. Their profile distance put them nearer to Sunderland than South Sudan. Of course, you get LGBT+ people in the services. And it can be a fetish for some people to have sex with someone in a uniform. But it’s also a relatively common scam to claim to be military personnel based overseas who require funds for flights home or early discharge from the forces.
3 Arouse interest
Consider your profile as a teaser. Tempt someone to look at your profile. But think carefully about including your interests. These can be shared over subsequent messages or face to face meetings. Like in a date – we used to have them back in the day. Don’t mention your income or where you work. Choose whether you need to say what you do for a job. Be aware of sounding needy and lonely in your profile. It makes you perfect prey for scammers looking to hook you into their scams.
Do not post personal information, such as phone numbers, on dating sites. Look at the backgrounds in any pictures that you post. Do they include, for example, the number on your front door or your company logo? It is great to be out and proud, and I’d firmly encourage that. But it potentially could leave you more open to fraud or a hate crime if you disclose too much personal information. Brian asked me to add the previous line, and I understand why it is useful to be wary of posting too much personal information.
4 Long-distance lover
Think about the practicalities of anyone contacting you from several thousand miles away. A common scam is that they eventually arrange to visit you but need money to pay travel costs. And just to complicate issues, it’s possible for a scammer to fake their location, so you think they are in central London, or Newcastle upon Tyne. And they are in Bulgaria. Or Norfolk, the dating fraud capital of England and Wales, according to Which?
Read more: https://www.which.co.uk/news/2017/06/revealed-the-fraud-capitals-near-you/ – Which?
They might say their work or studies take them elsewhere in the world. They say that they may be coming back soon, and, of course, to wait for them because they can’t wait to meet you. Brian told me he was told this over and over again.
Sharing your personal info
Wait until you feel comfortable with an individual before telling them things like your phone number, place of work or address. For some, this info might be shared within minutes. Others might arrange to meet in a public place first. My friend was asked for his address so that the scammer could send him a card, which he found so romantic.
Never send money or give credit card or online account details to anyone you don’t know and trust. My friend used a money transfer service, Royal Mail Special Delivery to send cash and even shared his Debit Card details with the scammer.
5 They always have an excuse for why they can’t see you
The scammer will tell you that they can’t wait to see you and that they are making arrangements to travel in a month or two when they can get away from their business/studies / abusive partner/ job hunting. Right before you’re supposed to meet, they have to cancel the trip for some reason. They may get halfway there to you. And there’s another problem. They’ve got COVID-19. And need urgent treatment. Similar problems and mishaps happen over and over again. It’s like a twisted version of a TV soap. And is another huge tip-off you’re dealing with a scammer.
6 Webcam action
It may be tempting to say more than hello using a webcam or the camera on your phone. After all, you can’t physically do stuff, like actually together. Be careful when using your webcam with a new remote love interest, even if it’s someone whom you think you know. The footage could be used against you and try to exploit you. This applies to cameras on all devices, from computers and laptops to smartphones and tablets.
But on the other hand, there could be a benefit to actually seeing your new love interest. A little extra reassurance that they’re real if their profile picture(s) matches the moving person on your screen. It could still be a scam, but it adds to potential incriminating evidence. Some scammers wouldn’t want to present their real face. There are other ways to capture camera footage, but Skype calls can be recorded, using a built-in tool. https://support.skype.com/en/faq/FA12395/how-do-i-record-my-skype-calls
Should you video chat?
I can’t say you should, or should not video chat. But I would be suspicious if a lover didn’t want to, or try to somehow explain certain technical problems. Brian didn’t understand the technical problems but accepted that it wasn’t possible to video chat.
Way up the potential benefits and harms before using your webcam. Just in passing, some people cover up their webcam or disconnect it when they are not using it.
7 Steal my heart
They may take the time to chat with you every day for hours. Outside of our current friendships, how many of us would actively make time for someone they barely know? The romance fraud scammer might, because it’s their ‘job’.
Their attentiveness feels great because they know it’s probably been a while since someone has been this devoted to you. But beware; what they’re really doing is that they are looking for your weak spots. Say you’ve lost a close member of your family – don’t be surprised if they tell you they have too. Or that you are lonely after breaking up with your ex. Surprisingly, so are they. They use these holes in your heart to get you to trust them, knowing it will be easy for you to bond with someone who has experienced the same loss as you.
“Baby, I can’t wait”
As you’re bonding, they are telling you things like, “I love you, baby, I can’t wait to see you, baby”, often quite early on in the relationship. They try to establish a bond quickly. For example, they may give you an endearing pet name or tell you that “they’ve never felt like this before”. “Baby”. Now they’re ready to rein you in for the scam. They share the news with you about a huge business deal they’re about to close and once it’s done, they will come to see you. They just need a little more money to finish it or they’ll lose everything, Baby. The scammer might tell you that family members or friends have invested as well but the bank won’t be able to give them the last bit they need so they’re going to lose the deal and all the money they and their family have invested.
Often the scammer will pretend to need the money for some sort of personal emergency. For example, they may claim to have a severely ill family member who requires immediate medical attention such as an expensive operation. Or they may claim financial hardship due to an unfortunate run of bad luck such as a failed business, rent due or mugging in the street. Or they have lost their mother, and need to get back home for the funeral, and to deal with the estate. They want to bring her gold bars(!), jewellery to the UK to sell, to start a new life with you but there are taxes involved.
Another scam involves some sort of immigration problem, and they need a solicitor. The scammer may also claim they want to travel to visit you, but cannot afford it unless someone is able to lend them money to cover flights or other travel expenses. Brian confirms nearly all of this happened to him.
Asking for help
This is when they ask you for your help. They may not even ask for your help, baby. They love you. Brian loved him and wanted to help. He offers without asked; responding to the seed planted through their sorry, awful tale. After all, you are a kind, thoughtful, and considerate person. And lonely.
The scammer has done the work needed to capture your heart. You’re in love with them and you don’t want to see your darling suffer. You want to help your baby so you try to send the money they need to their bank account. But the bank account belongs to the equivalent of a drug mule. The scammer withdraws the money and the account closed. And you never hear from them again.
Or your bank asked what the money was for and why you need to pay someone. And the bank blocked the transfer, which happened to Brian. So the scammer came up with an alternate way of getting the money using an online money transfer service. And all the while Brian was anxious that he couldn’t get the money to his new lover who was in trouble; it was actually a scammer who could have been anywhere in the world.
It’s their job
They often do multiple scams to multiple people at the same time. It’s their job. They might work in a scammer’s call centre (read BBC news story https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/stories-51753362), do it at home or an internet café. Multiple burner/ disposable phones used, spreadsheets to keep track of profiles / telephone numbers / email addresses, names, backstories about the scammer profile and details about the victim, to be added to as the scam progresses. Your lover is called Mark. To other victims, his name is Marco, Matt, Mateo, Milo, Miguel, Maria or Michelle. They could be anywhere in the world, and they all want your money. Even if you haven’t got any. Brian didn’t have much. Now he’s got none.
Brian read the first draft of this with me. He is horrified – it reminds him of the pitfalls of looking for a lover online or using dating apps. But remember, huge numbers of people meet people for hookups and establish loving relationships using these services. Love could be around the corner. Just be careful. Be safe. Love (and romance fraud) is all around us.
Getting help for romance fraud
First of all you won’t be judged. Just reading about Brian gives you an idea on how romance fraud scammers are expert at manipulating their victims are. And research shows that some LGBT people are especially vulnerable to loneliness as they are more likely to be single, live alone, and have lower levels of contact with relatives.
Where should I report cases of payment fraud?
Your bank or card company should be the first point of contact for reporting fraud. You should also report incidents of fraud to Action Fraud, the national fraud and cybercrime reporting centre for the police. You can contact Action Fraud on 0300 123 2040 or at http://www.actionfraud.police.uk
I want to report information about a fraud anonymously, who should I contact?
If you want to disclose information confidentially you can contact Crimestoppers. Crimestoppers is an independent UK-wide charity working to stop crime.
Call Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111 or visit https://crimestoppers-uk.org/
I want to report the fraud to my app provider/ dating site, what should I do?
You can report fake dating profiles to the websites that they’re posted on. This will help the sites to close down any fraudulent accounts.
If you’ve lost money to a romantic scammer or think that they may have stolen your personal information, you can contact Action Fraud https://www.actionfraud.police.uk/
Where can I go for help and support if I think I’ve been scammed?
If you need help about romance fraud it’s worth asking a trusted friend or family member.
Where can I read about romance fraud?
There’s an interesting Wikipedia page about romance fraud.
BBC news story: Romance scam victim ‘bled dry’ as fraud cases spiral