Comment: The pandemic has exacerbated the heartless crime of being swindled out of love

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LONDON: Several years after her husband’s death, Tina felt ready to move on with her life. Encouraged by her friends, she joined an online dating site for over 50s and was approached by Andrew.

A handsome widower with silver hair and a broad smile, he said, had lost his wife around the same time. They formed a close bond and quickly exchanged phone messages every day, exchanging photos of their family and planning to meet when he returned from work abroad.

The connection seemed real – but the photos were stolen, used to create a fake profile. Tina was not only heartbroken, but financially broken – during their online relationship she had been persuaded to loan ‘Andrew’ over £ 80,000 (US $ 111,300).

The sad truth is that romance scams have exploded during the pandemic as millions of single people turn to online dating, perhaps for the first time.

READ: S $ 295,000 lost to sex scams in March; some victims cheated on after looking online for sex services

Romance fraud rose 38% in 2020, according to the latest data from the UK Finance retail banking organization, with nearly 3,000 cases reported. More than £ 21million has been lost to scammers, a 17% year-over-year increase, with the average loss per victim exceeding £ 7,000.

Experts believe this is the tip of the iceberg. Many scams go unreported because the shame of being a victim is so great and the chances of getting your money back so low.

A CRIME WITHOUT A HEART

Criminals and their victims are often found on different continents, but the ease of smartphone messaging using photos and videos pulled from unlocked social media accounts makes it easy to disguise.

Lockdown restrictions have been the perfect excuse not to meet IRL (in real life) – previously, working overseas or serving in the military were common reasons.

However, awareness of this heartless crime is being heightened by a series of documentaries, reality shows and films – and there are growing calls for legal reforms and controls in place. tighter line to better protect vulnerable consumers.

Victims of online scams often don’t report because they’re ashamed. (Photo: AFP)

Tina’s story was featured on the BBC series this week. Those over 55 clearly offer rich choices for criminals as they are more likely to have pensions and real estate to loot.

However, the launch of, a spin-off of the hugely popular American film and reality TV series, shows that people of any age, gender or sexual orientation can be targeted.

READ: Comment: The increase in online dating during the pandemic could lead to more serious relationships and marriages in the coming years

Cat fishing – luring someone into an online relationship by setting up a fake profile – is not in itself a crime. The MTV series (you can watch it via Now TV or Amazon Prime) shows countless examples of women who are tricked into sending intimate photos to seemingly attractive men they’ve met online.

When tracked down and confronted by the show’s hosts, the authors are revealed to look nothing like their profile photos, which were harvested online.

The first episode of Catfish UK featured Emma, ​​a single mom from Brighton, who had been ghosted by her online boyfriend Harlan after refusing requests to lend her money.

A simple reverse image search of his profile photo revealed that photos taken from a naval officer’s real Facebook account had been used to create fake profiles on dating sites across Europe, with many victims persuaded to part with thousands of euros.

With the sums at stake being large, crooks are willing to invest a lot of time in getting to know their victims and building trust. They can exchange messages for months before asking for money and use elaborate excuses to chain them – for years, in some cases.

UK finance statistics show the average victim of a dating scam is bugged five times before realizing they’ve been cheated. Sadly, many victims who agree to appear on TV shows still desperately want to believe their scam relationship is real.

The passage of time makes it harder to get that money back, but more victims who challenge their banks over liability for losses are now being reimbursed.

British banks adopted a voluntary code in 2019 to reimburse those who have been victims of fraud through no fault of their own. Previously, only 6% of the sums lost due to romantic fraud were returned. The latest figure is 38% – a huge increase.

READ: Commentary: COVID-19 killed friendships – but that’s okay

Unsurprisingly, banks are adamant that online platforms need to do more to prevent this type of crime. “We are seeing a worrying increase in online and technology-based scams that use digital platforms to directly target victims,” ​​says Katy Worobec, head of economic crime at UK Finance, who urges the government to use the next online security bill to ensure platforms are doing more to protect consumers.

“Removing fraudulent ads from search engines, removing fake profiles from online dating sites and tackling fraudulent content on social networks” are three urgent actions, says Worobec.

CAN SITES OR ONLINE BANKS DO MORE?

As seen in TV documentaries such as Catfish, performing a ‘reverse image search’ on a profile photo takes seconds and often reveals multiple dating profiles under different names, and sometimes explicit scam warnings from other victims. .

Why shouldn’t online dating sites be forced to perform these searches to eliminate malicious profiles?

Because criminals quickly move conversations with victims offline, dating sites say they’re not responsible for what happens next – and while online fraud is skyrocketing, there was a notable absence. scam warnings on the homepages of those I’ve been browsing this week.

Facebook Dating_Screen Capture_Image 1_mod

Screenshot of Facebook Dating. (Photo: Facebook)

On the other hand, the banks multiply the warning messages (if you transfer payments via a banking application, you will undoubtedly have noticed it). Nationwide requires customers to complete a “for payment” screen, with a personalized scam warning accordingly.

After stating that a transfer was intended for a friend or family member, the app asked, “Have you been asked to send money to someone you’ve never met?” Talk to someone you trust first. Customers should then click “I’m happy to continue” or “Stop now”.

I’m interested to see what impact these warnings will have on crime prevention or, unfortunately, more likely, on reducing bank compensation payments.

READ: Commentary: The secular currency of modern dating

Meanwhile, much more is being lost to investment fraud – £ 135million last year. I note that Nationwide’s app now has a direct link to FCA’s list of “scam warnings” and urges clients to check it before making any investment transfers.

But will they do it? The Financial Conduct Authority launched a consultation on high-risk investments this week, saying checkbox risk warnings were “seen as white noise by many investors and often did not reflect the real possibility of a loss. investment ”.

Heartless souls might think romance fraud victims are foolish, but I think baring their souls on TV is brave and deterrent more than any warning message.

If you or someone you know has recently started dating online, encourage them to watch one of the shows mentioned – or the brilliant Netflix movie, which conveys the same message in a more artistic format.



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