Romance scams have soared by a fifth during the pandemic, with Action Fraud, the National Fraud & Cyber Crime Reporting Centre, part of the Police, revealing 20 per cent increase in bank transfer romance fraud between January and November 2020 compared to the previous year.
Issuing a pre-Valentine warning, Action Fraud says the total value of these scams rising by 12 per cent to £18.5m. The average loss per victim reported to UK Finance members was £7,850, highlighting the significant impact this type of fraud can have on victims’ finances, it says.
One in seven people have been the victim of a romance scam and a third of these have been targeted since the pandemic started in March, according to Aviva. Aviva’s research found that young people aged 25-34 years old, are the age group most likely (27%) to admit to having been the victim of a romance scam. Aviva also has anecdotal evidence which suggests older people are also being targeted online.
Action Fraud has also seen a rise in reports made by members of the public who have fallen victim to romance fraud in 2020, with total reported losses equating to over £68m. In other scams victims have lost money via bank transfer, money transfer, sending fraudsters gift cards and vouchers or presents such as phones and laptops, and providing them with access to their bank account or card.
Romance scams involve people being duped into sending money to criminals who go to great lengths to gain their trust and convince them that they are in a genuine relationship. They use language to manipulate, persuade and exploit so that requests for money do not raise alarm bells. These requests might be highly emotive, such as criminals claiming they need money for emergency medical care, or to pay for transport costs to visit the victim if they are overseas.
The rise in romance scams comes as more people have turned to online dating during 2020 due to social distancing restrictions. Figures from the Online Dating Association (ODA) estimate that over 2.3 million Brits used dating apps during the first lockdown, with 64 per cent of people surveyed seeing dating apps as a lifeline for those living alone. While the internet can be a great way to meet people and form new relationships, the growth in popularity of online dating is giving criminals more opportunities to exploit and coerce people into parting with their money.
Scammers will often build a relationship with their victims over time, the ODA’s data shows that half (53 per cent) of people surveyed are having longer conversations on dating services during lockdown. UK Finance is therefore calling on people to look out for their friends and family this Valentine’s Day. The Police say dating app users should also speak to their friends and family for advice, and follow the advice of the Take Five to Stop Fraud campaign to keep themselves safe from scams.
UK Finance managing director of economic crime Katy Worobec says: “With the rising use of online dating service users during lockdown, criminals are using clever tactics to exploit people who think they’ve met their perfect partner online.
“Romance scams can leave customers out of love and out of pocket, but there are steps people can take to keep themselves or their family and friends safe – both on and offline. People can help their loved ones spot the signs of a scam, particularly as romance scammers can be very convincing by forming an emotional attachment with their victims.
“The banking and finance industry is working hard to protect customers from fraud, but everyone should remain vigilant to the risks of romance scams. If you suspect you’ve been the victim of a scam, please contact your bank as soon as possible.”
Aviva group financial crime risk director Peter Hazlewood says: “Romance scammers are exploiting the pandemic and lockdown conditions by preying on people who are spending more time at home, often in isolation, and on the internet. Typically, these fraudsters pretend to be someone completely different from who they are in real life. They usually begin by building trust with their victim, feigning friendship or romance. They then begin to drop subtle hints about needing money for a difficult situation.
“Recently, we’ve spoken to older customers who appear to have been targeted through online gaming forums, where they form friendships with people with whom they regularly play games like chess and backgammon. These victims are looking to drawdown on their retirement savings to, seemingly, give it to fraudsters. In a situation like this, where we have suspicions without evidence of fraud, we work hard to do whatever is in our power to protect our customers and their savings.”
“These scams usually start with one relatively small amount being handed over, but often escalate into a number of payments which can really add-up. People should not be embarrassed to admit falling for a romance scam. These fraudsters are incredibly convincing and will do anything to persuade their victim to part with their cash and, what is sometimes, their life savings.”