All this week, Cambridgeshire Police will be supporting a national campaign involving all the UK police services and some of the companies providing dating services, to help raise the awareness of online romance/dating fraud and provide advice on how to stay safe online.
Romance, or dating fraud, occurs when a relationship is formed online, but the profile of the perfect partner you think you've met, is in fact fake.
The scammer makes you believe you're in a loving relationship spanning weeks, or perhaps months to gain your trust. However, the end goal is always a much more sinister one, with criminals after money or personal information.
Between August 2019 and August 2020, Action Fraud received over 400 reports a month from victims of romance fraud in the UK. Losses reported by victims during this time totalled £66,335,239, equating to an average loss of just over £10,000 per victim.
During June, July and August 2020, romance fraud reports jumped to more than 600 per month, indicating people may have met, and begun talking to, romance fraudsters during the national lockdown caused by the coronavirus outbreak.
It has a devastating emotional and financial impact on the victim, who often feel foolish for falling for the lies once they realise what's happened. This may then have an impact on people deciding not to report such instances, but it's important to understand criminals are experts at impersonating people, they spend hours researching individuals for their scams.
Criminals from across the world use commonly used dating apps, they create fake accounts using images they copy or manipulate from all over the internet and then they use persuasive language to groom and control their victim, coercing them into parting with large sums of money or personal information.
During the week long campaign, many dating apps will be running additional fraud protection advice throughout October to help raise awareness of the signs to look out as they use more advanced technology to keep users safe and check profiles are genuine as well as introducing video functions.
But there are simple steps you can take to help keep yourself safe and several warning signs to look out for:
- if someone you're talking to declares their love quite quickly, with talk of making significant commitments like marriage or buying a house together, be wary and don't give away too many personal details;
- they claim to work overseas, perhaps in the military or medical profession, often painting a picture of themselves as being heroic, but also gives a credible reason for an international dialling code or poor internet connection. A lot of fraudsters aren't based in the UK;
- if they're reluctant to meet in person, or even video chat and quickly want to move off onto other messaging platforms, which have better encryption, meaning evidence of your chats is harder to find. Stay on the site's messaging service until you've met someone or you're sure they are who they say they are;
- if they ask for financial help, it's likely to be for something urgent and emotive, to trick you into feeling sorry for them and want to help. If you're asked for money or are suspicious their photos aren't theirs, most platforms have a reporting tool - which will help to protect others. They may ask you to buy gift cards, Amazon, iTunes and alike, scratch of the back of the card and send them the code.
- they tell you to keep your relationship quiet and insist you don't tell your friends and family about them. This is because someone close to you is likely to question this person's motives, as they've not been emotionally involved. They're actually a good place to start if you're unsure of someone's motives and will give you their honest opinion, don't shut them out or isolate yourself.
The top five platforms where victims reported first interacting with the criminal committing romance fraud were Facebook, Plenty of Fish, Instagram, Tinder and Match.com
A technical tip, on any online image you can do what is called a reverse image search. For example, on a profile you could save the image of the person you are communicating with and then upload it to Google images or to a website called Tin Eye (others are available) This may just return a search result that shows you where the image has featured on another website, remember thought, just because the search result reveals no matches, it does not mean the profile picture is genuine. Criminals know of this feature and so they manipulate images using software, or they use images that do not feature anywhere else on the internet.