Coronavirus Lockdown Increases ‘Romance Fraud’
UK Finance and Action Fraud have both reported increases in fraud related to romance scams over the lockdown period.
What Is Romance Fraud?
Romance fraud/romance scams refers to fraudsters adopting fake personas online in order to fool a victim into thinking they are in a serious romantic relationship with the aim of convincing the victim to send money (e.g. bank transfers, gifts) or share personal information which can later be used to commit identity fraud. Fraudsters (gangs) also use romance fraud victims to help them launder money.
UK Finance and Action Fraud Figures
With Valentine’s Day just gone, UK Finance figures show a 20 per cent increase in bank transfer fraud in 2020 on the previous year linked to romance scams. UK Finance figures also show that the total value of these kinds of scams rose by 12 per cent to £18.5m.
In both 2019 and 2020, the amount of money lost to romance fraud outstripped that stolen by online shopping fraud, according to Action Fraud, which is the main reporting body in the UK.
Lloyds Bank data shows that those who are particularly at risk of romance fraud are people aged 55 to 64. These are often people who live alone an/or may be out of touch with family and friends, may not be skilled with technology and may be at a point in their life where they are actively looking for a relationship. The national lockdowns and other restrictions on social lives over the pandemic also appear to have made it easier for romance fraudsters to target and exploit their victims.
Dating apps are one of the main ways that romance fraudsters target their victims and Online Dating Association figures show that 2.3 million UK citizens used dating apps during the lockdown. Many of those targeted through dating apps are thought to have been duped into losing £18.5m through bank transfer fraud in 2020 with an average loss per victim of £7,850.
Romance fraudsters also use fake social media (Facebook) profiles and pages, using stolen photos as well as fake websites in order to support an online persona. They often pose as soldiers, merchants, or professionals, and closely study the online profiles of their victims in order to help provide fuel for manipulative conversations.
Many people do not report falling victim to romance scams due to embarrassment and shame, and many victims have their self-esteem damaged as well as losing money.
In 2019, banks agreed upon a code that if a fraud victim is found to have “taken reasonable care and has any element of vulnerability" they may be able to receive a refund from the bank.
How To Avoid Romance Fraud
Steps that people can take to avoid falling victim to romance fraud include:
- Making sure that a person can physically (and safely) meet the person face-to-face who wants a relationship with them. Romance fraudsters tend to avoid personal contact, preferring email, phone, Skype to hide their fake identity and avoid difficult questions.
- Have a healthy suspicion of people who try to move the conversation quickly away from communication through a dating website to other more private means e.g., email, or of anyone trying to randomly connect via email, Facebook, WhatsApp, Skype, or other online means.
- Google the text used in conversations as it is often part of a well-known scam script.
- Use Google Image search at images.google.com to check if any photographs of a person are genuine, stolen or have featured in other scams.
- Never send money to a romantic online contact.
- Contact Action Fraud with any suspicions of romance fraud.
What Does This Mean For Your Business?
Although dating sites and social media are generally used legitimately, it pays to be suspicious of certain types of behaviour and requests, and if something sounds too good to be true, it’s often because it is. Fraudsters are skilled manipulators, often used scripted, tried and tested approaches and are aware that potential victims may be emotionally vulnerable for a number of reasons. This is something that has been exacerbated by the isolation, separation, and restrictions of the pandemic lockdowns.