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Heartbreak as dating scams soar in lockdown

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Written by: Emma Lunn
11/06/2021
Which? is calling for greater protection for victims of ‘romance fraud’ as cases spiked during the pandemic when virtual dating became the norm.

The consumer champion’s analysis of Action Fraud data shows romance fraud was up by 40% in the year to April 2021, with more than 7,500 reported scams.

Reported losses reached £73.9m during this period but the true figure is likely to be much higher as many victims are too embarrassed or upset to tell the authorities.

Romance scams involve the scammers preying on the emotional vulnerability of the victim and building trust with them before asking for money. Fraudsters often claim that they need the money to travel to the UK to build a life together.

Real life stories

Andrew (not his real name) was exchanging messages with a potential love interest on dating website ‘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 quickly followed by more requests – £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.

Andrew said: “I became suspicious and contacted my bank to report the scam, but the money couldn’t be recovered. I haven’t dated at all since the scam. I am not one who exudes confidence in that area and with Covid-19 rearing its ugly head, more traditional ways have not been possible. I didn’t report what happened on the website. Likely at the time for the reason I guessed it was my fault for being taken in, not their fault for being in existence.”

In many cases, scammers are likely to be gangs of organised criminals looking to part people from their hard-earned cash.

David, (not his real name), aged 65, was also cheated out of nearly £4,000 after meeting someone on Twitter. This scammer posed as a young woman, but David later discovered he was messaging a man in Nigeria. David thought the money he sent was to pay for a flight ticket and a visa for her to come to the UK to live, marry him and settle down as a family. Twitter has since permanently suspended the scammer’s profile.

How to stay safe while dating online

When online dating, consumers should always be on high alert for fraudsters using stolen photos – even in video calls.

To find out whether a photo is fake, consumers can use TinEye or Google Image Search to do a reverse image search. This tracks where else on the internet this photo exists to see if it could be a stock or stolen image.

Which?’s findings raise serious questions about the legal responsibilities of online platforms and online sites to protect their users from fake and fraudulent content and potential scams.

Bank transfer scams

The contingent reimbursement model code, in place since May 2019 and 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.

Victims who, like Andrew, are convinced to transfer funds to non-UK accounts will not be covered by the code. Only transfers between UK accounts can benefit from the limited protection offered by the code. Under this code, 38% of all losses were returned to romance fraud victims in 2020, up from 6% in the six months before the code was introduced.

However, Which? is concerned that banks are applying the code inconsistently. While some firms reimburse the majority of authorised push payment fraud victims, others only reimburse about one in 10. This means many victims face a lottery when it comes to getting their money back.

Emotional impact

Customers in need of support when trying to recoup their losses often face a grilling over their actions from banks, compounding the devastating emotional impact of their ordeal.

Adam French, Which? consumer rights expert, said: “Romance scams are particularly devastating for victims, who may be vulnerable when they are targeted by fraudsters – and it is very worrying to see such a huge rise in these scams as criminals look to exploit the pandemic.

“Where appropriate, banks and payment providers should be following the code they signed up to and reimbursing victims of scams that use sophisticated psychological tactics to trick victims into handing over their cash. Anyone who is struggling to get their money back from their bank should report this to the Financial Ombudsman Service to review their case.

“The voluntary code on scams has led to a reimbursement lottery for victims. It should be replaced with mandatory standards for protection and reimbursement and strong enforcement for firms that don’t follow the rules.”

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