Romance fraud soared by 40% during the pandemic, Which? warns

Which? is calling for greater protections for devastated victims of romance fraud, as new analysis from the consumer champion shows a dramatic spike in cases during the pandemic. 

Dating without meeting in person has become the new normal in the last year, giving fraudsters new opportunities to take advantage of online daters.

Which? analysis of Action Fraud data shows romance fraud was up by 40 per cent in the year to April 2021, with over 7,500 reported scams.

Reported losses reached £73.9 million 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 are a sophisticated type of fraud – with 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.

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

He 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.”

David, 65, (not his real name) 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.

He said: “After I found out the truth, I was heartbroken and very upset. My emotions were all over the place finding it difficult to accept that I had been taken in. This is such a cruel thing to do to an elderly pensioner who wanted love but instead got fleeced by this evil corrupt man who has no shame in what he did to me and no doubt has done to many others.”

Twitter has since permanently suspended the scammer’s profile.

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

One Which? member reported via the consumer champion’s Scam Watch inbox that she had a strange video call with someone she later discovered was using stolen video footage. She said: “How they did it I have no idea because I discovered those pictures were of a plastic surgeon in the USA. It worries me that some women will fall for it.”

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.

The consumer champion’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.

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 APP fraud victims, others only reimburse around one in 10 – meaning that many victims face a lottery when it comes to getting their money back.

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.

The consumer champion is calling for the Payment Systems Regulator and government to establish mandatory standards of consumer protection to protect victims from the current unfair and inconsistent approach by industry. Banks should also be made to regularly publish their reimbursement rates to improve transparency.

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.”

– ENDS – 

Notes to editors 

What to do if you’ve been targeted by a romance scammer

If a fraudster has stolen your money, report this to Action Fraud using the online fraud reporting tool, or by calling 0300 123 2040 Monday to Friday 8am – 8pm. You should also tell your bank.

Being a victim of fraud can take a huge toll on your mental health so make sure you talk to someone to get the support you need. Charity Victim Support offers a free and confidential helpline available on 0808 16 89 111 (lines open 24/7). Mind also has a support line, Mind Infoline, available on 0300 123 3393 (lines open 9am – 6pm, Monday – Friday).

You should also report fraudsters to the platform they used to contact you. The fraudster will not know that the report came from you and this could stop them in their tracks.

If you’ve already deleted your account you can still report a fraudster by emailing the customer support team with details of their username or a web link to their profile.

UK Finance statistics on reimbursement for romance scam victims

Rights of reply 

Twitter said: “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. We’re constantly adapting to bad actors’ evolving methods, and we will continue to iterate and improve upon our policies as the industry evolves.” said: “We take the safety of our members very seriously. When a member attempts to register to the service, they undergo various assessments performed by a third party, fraud and scammer detection service, before they can successfully register.  When a member submits public content to their profile including imagery, this is checked by our moderation team. Our customer service team performs a number of manual profile checks to remove disingenuous people.”

About Which?

Which? is the UK’s consumer champion, here to make life simpler, fairer and safer for everyone. Our research gets to the heart of consumer issues, our advice is impartial, and our rigorous product tests lead to expert recommendations. We’re the independent consumer voice that influences politicians and lawmakers, investigates, holds businesses to account and makes change happen. As an organisation we’re not for profit and all for making consumers more powerful.

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