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Beware of romance fraud – picture by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

Romance fraudsters have scammed £5.3m from Essex victims – here’s how to protect yourself online

People in Essex looking for love have been deceived into handing over £5.3m to romance fraudsters in the past two years.

There were 145 cases reported to Essex Police in 2020 with more than £3m lost – an average of more than £20,000 per victim. In 2021, there was a significant jump in reported cases with 234 victims coming forward, with £2.3m of losses.

Nationally, 8,863 romance frauds were reported between October 2020 and November 2021, with losses of £91.9m. However, it is widely believed that romance fraud is significantly underreported.

The frauds are mainly the work of organised criminal gangs, many of whom are based overseas. The fraudsters can groom victims for as long as a year, gaining their trust over many hours of conversation online or on the phone, sharing supposedly intimate secrets and often having a backstory likely to make the victim empathise with them. This makes requests for money appear legitimate and justifiable.

The fraudsters then use the information the victim shares about their life and family to manipulate or even threaten them, asking them for cash and gifts, or to launder money through their bank accounts.

Since October 2020, Essex Police has run a peer support group for romance fraud victims in partnership with Essex Victim Support.

Two members of the group have recently agreed to share their stories in the hope that other people can avoid falling into the same traps.

Clare, 49, is a businesswoman from the west of Essex with two grown-up children. She said losing more than £13,000 to two men she met on dating apps left her feeling “stupid and ashamed”.

Both men claimed to be widowed with young sons. One said he was a soldier in the US Army, the other a wealthy businessman based in Baltimore.

Tony, 50, a divorcee with two teenage children described how he had intimate relationships online with two women who he met on the website Plenty of Fish.

He said: “They were beautiful women and I was suckered in. I think a lot of men would have done exactly the same. I thought I was in love with them both. I wasn’t thinking straight.”

He sent £25,000 to the two women but got all the money back as it was transferred to UK bank accounts. He described the work the police and the banks did as “brilliant”.

David Gillies is the Prevent and Protect Fraud Officer for Essex. He runs the support group for victims alongside Essex Victim Support’s Sara McParland.

He said that romance fraud is often more complex than people realise and can have devastating effects on the long-term mental health of victims.

“Romance fraud is multimillion pound business. The fraudsters use psychological grooming to trap victims in situations that they may not recognise as abusive. They find it difficult to escape to or seek help. This is the same type of grooming that is used in domestic violence and coercive control cases.

“People don’t report fraud because they’re embarrassed or blame themselves. This prevents them from discussing their situation with their situation with friends and family.

“As a result of this, many receive little to no emotional support to cope with their experiences, leaving them isolated and potentially susceptible to repeat frauds as victims’ details can be traded between criminal organisations.

“By providing victims with a support group comprising of those who have encountered the same situation, we hope to minimise the stigma attached to this crime type by demonstrating to victims that they are not alone.”

David said there are some basic precautions people can take when dating online.

“If you meet someone on a dating site, don’t move onto WhatsApp or Zoom. If they start asking you for money, the dating site can get involved and close their account.

“Do a reverse image search of the person you’re talking to and if you’re having a video chat, get them to hold up a piece of paper with a word you’ve chosen on it.

“A lot of frauds work by pressuring someone into having to do something now. The fraudster may create a scenario where they are stuck somewhere or need funds urgently for a business deal.

“Also, tell your friends and family if you’ve met someone online. Fraudsters will often ask you to keep the relationship a secret. This is to isolate you from your loved ones and minimise the risks of the fraud being exposed.

“Do your research, take time to think about what it is you’re being asked to do and what information you’re being asked to provide. Only criminals will try to rush or panic you. It’s OK to reject requests for money or information.

“The easiest way to stay safe is to never send, transfer or invest money if asked by someone you meet online, and don’t share your personal documents or allow access to your bank accounts.”

If you believe you’ve been a victim of romance fraud, call us on 101. For other forms of fraud, you can also contact Action Fraud – the national fraud and cybercrime reporting centre – by clicking on the link or calling 0300 123 2040

(Article supplied by Essex Police)

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