Two Victim Support case workers are proving a “valuable addition” to Sussex Police’s efforts to tackle online romance fraud, which nationally cost victims £41 million last year. On average victims lost £11,500, according to figures from City of London Police, with almost half saying it had a “significant impact” on their health or financial wellbeing.
Romance fraud typically involves the fraudster contacting someone on a dating site and gaining their trust. They tell their victim they need money for a family emergency, flights over to see them, or various other pretexts.
In nearly 90 per cent of cases the approach is made by Facebook or email.
In Sussex in the year to September 30, 149 victims lost a total of £2,280,000, with an average loss of £18,700. And four out of five romance fraud attempts succeeded, says Sussex Police. Fifty-seven per cent of victims lived alone and their average age was 62.
The two case workers, funded by Sussex police and crime commissioner Katy Bourne and working through Victim Support, support vulnerable victims who have been systematically targeted by criminals. The pair, who cover the whole county, follow-up on referrals from Operation Signature, Sussex Police’s campaign to identify and support vulnerable victims of fraud.
PC Bernadette Lawrie, financial abuse safeguarding officer at Sussex Police, said: “The involvement of the case workers is a valuable addition to our efforts, in particular in relation to romance fraud.
“Romance fraud, although accounting for only ten of all fraud reports, is one of the most despicable crimes we see, and the victims can be among the most challenging to deal with as they are often in denial that the fraudster they are in contact with is not genuine – until it is too late
“Victims are targeted and exploited when they are at their most vulnerable and the complex tactics and deceitful tales that lure the victims into parting with such huge sums of money are quite astonishing.
“One of the most difficult conversations we have is telling a victim that not only will they not see their money come back but that the person they believe they are in a relationship with and are looking forward to a future with, is in fact a criminal posing under a false identity.”
Sussex Police, which is supporting a YouTube video produced by the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) warning people of the dangers of falling victim to romance fraudsters, has a process for recognising victims of all fraud as victims of crime and providing preventative measures to support and protect them from further targeting.
This can include helping them change their phone number to ex-directory, contacting family to suggest Power of Attorney, mail re-direction, offering advice on call-blocking devices and referring them to other support services.
Officers also raise awareness of the issue within local communities through ‘Prevention teams’ and news and social media, encouraging people to take preventative steps.
According to a report released earlier this year by the #DateSafe working group, which aims to raise awareness of the risks of romance fraud in the UK, victims are almost twice as likely to be women and aged in their forties or fifties.
The working group – which includes Get Safe Online, City of London Police, the MPS Operation Falcon (Fraud and Linked Crime Online), Age UK, Victim Support and the Online Dating Association – also says evidence suggests these numbers do not accurately represent the true scale of the problem due to the embarrassment felt by some victims of fraud, which can discourage people from coming forward to report their experience.
The MPS video, The Little Guide to Avoiding Romance Fraud, aims to discourage people from sending money to someone they have never met before.
It highlights how scammers have been taking advantage of the increased popularity of online dating and have multiple techniques to get money out of hopeful singles.
Some of the methods mentioned include needing money to travel for a first date, pay off a small debt, or for a family member’s medical bills.
The video explains that the fraudsters will typically try to move to alternative contact methods – such as text messages or WhatsApp.
“What they’re doing is evading scrutiny. They want you to go off-site, because if someone else reports them and their profile gets taken down, they can still make contact with you,” warns the video.
Users of online dating platforms are encouraged to “stay in contact on the dating website for a while, check the stories people tell you, by doing a few simple internet searches, and talk to your family and friends about it”.
Detective Inspector Suzanne Grimmer of MPS Falcon says the criminals “have no conscience”, adding: “They prey on the kindness, good nature and emotions of their victims by offering a sob story to trick them into parting with their money.”