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Virtual dating boom leads to surging UK 'romance fraud’

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Fraudsters often claimed that they need the money to travel to the UK to build a life together. Photo: Getty Images
Fraudsters often claimed that they need the money to travel to the UK to build a life together. Photo: Getty Images

Romance fraud, in which scammers cheat victims out of money by feigning romantic interest, soared during the pandemic as people spent more time online.

Which? found these scams were up by 40% in the year to April 2021, with over 7,500 incidents reported. Victims lost out on almost £74m ($105m) combined, but the figure could be higher because many may have been too embarrassed to tell the authorities.

The report said that as dating without meeting in person became the new normal in the last year amid national lockdowns, fraudsters were able to take advantage of online daters.

Fraudsters often claimed they needed the money to travel to the UK to build a life together.

One man was exchanging messages with a potential love interest on a website called Older Dating Online in November 2019. After weeks of emails and telephone calls, plans were made to meet for the first time.

As the woman was supposedly based in Russia, she asked for £650 to obtain a passport. This was followed by £3,000 to prove to Russian authorities that she had sufficient cash to visit the UK and funds to cover medical expenses for her father who had COVID-19.

Older Dating Online said: “We take the safety of our members very seriously. Our customer service team performs a number of manual profile checks to remove disingenuous people.”

Read more: Virtual hiring to continue post-pandemic as trend appeals to recruiters

Another man who was 65 years old said he was cheated out of £4,000 after meeting someone on Twitter. This scammer posed as a young woman, but turned out to be a man in Nigeria.

Twitter (TWTR) has since suspended the scammer’s profile.

“It is against our rules to use scam tactics on Twitter to obtain money or private financial information. Where we identify violations of our rules, we take robust enforcement action,” the company said.

Which? is now calling for greater protections for victims.

It said that the contingent reimbursement model code, signed by the majority of banks, makes clear that victims of bank transfer scams should be reimbursed for their losses when they are not at fault.

But victims who transfer funds to non-UK accounts will not be covered. Which? is also concerned that banks are applying the code inconsistently. 

The group is calling for the Payment Systems Regulator and the UK government to establish mandatory standards of consumer protection to protect victims.

"Banks should be made to regularly publish their reimbursement rates to improve transparency," it added.

As for consumers, if they fear they have been a victim of such a scam they must immediately tell their bank, report the incident to Action Fraud, and also alert the online platform that was used by the fraudster to contact them.

Consumers should also "be on high alert for fraudsters using stolen photos – even in video calls,” Which? said.

To find out whether a photo is fake, consumers can use TinEye or Google Image Search to do a reverse image search.

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