Pandemic helps heartless romance fraudsters infect the internet | Scams

Fraudsters who engage in romance scams are becoming increasingly brazen about how they operate and are willing to spend five months building up a relationship with their victims, according to a security expert.

In some cases, criminals will even have video calls with victims, luring them into a false sense of security that they are involved with someone who is genuinely interested in them.

The number of romance scams, where people hand over money to someone they believe they are in a relationship with, doubled during the pandemic with the average victim losing £6,100, according to figures from TSB. Women are twice as likely to be victims as men.

Jake Moore, a cyber-security adviser at internet security firm ESET, says fraudsters can spend four to five months in establishing a fake relationship before carrying out the crime. During this time, they will often be working on several victims.

“They’re very good at remembering all the stories that lead along that journey [ending in] an elaborate scam as to why they want the money,” he says.

These scams can be as simple as a person claiming their car has broken down on the way to visit and that they need money to repair it, he explains. In another instance reported by TSB, a “soldier” claimed he needed funds to get home from a foreign posting.

Victims, who TSB says are an average age of 47, have been increasingly targeted through social media and dating apps.

There have been warnings to consumers to beware of scams before Valentine’s Day .

Many scammers used restrictions on movement during the pandemic as an excuse not to meet up with victims. Refusing to meet in real-life, or face to face for a video call, are both things that should ring alarm bells.

However, Moore says that criminals are now taking more risks and making face-to-face video calls where they are fully visible.

“There are male and female fraudsters who put in video calls every night, really creating this perfect story as to how this relationship unfolds.”

He advises daters to change the times of the calls and to be spontaneous about when they happen, as this could upset a fraudster’s timetable.

“If they are controlling and saying ‘it’s got to be this time’ then that could be a red flag,” he says.

Katherine Hart from the Chartered Trading Standards Institute, which represents trading standards officers, says the pandemic increased people’s reliance on indirect communications through phones.

“There’s the thinking that they’re protected by a computer screen to a certain extent, and will easily, and quite readily, pass on a lot of personal information via text or emails,” she says.

“Unfortunately, quite often we only find out about these things when somebody has actually intervened, whether that be a bank or a family member, or the victim has caused themselves such mental anguish there is a referral from social services.”

In some instances, criminals will scan the death announcements and target lonely widowers in the following months with the promise of companionship, she says.

Action Fraud reported instances of romance fraud were up 40% in the year to April last year with almost £74m being lost.

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