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Romance Fraud: The dark side of online dating

A hacker on his laptop sits opposite a woman on her laptop
Scammers use fake profiles on dating and social media platforms to trick people into sending them large sums of money | Shutterstock

When people say online dating can be a real minefield, they’re usually referring to the high probability of being trapped on awkward, job interview-style dates with people who look only slightly like their profile pics. But things can sometimes take a far darker turn. Cases of ‘romance fraud’ are on the rise, with scammers using fake profiles on dating apps and social media sites to trick people into sending them money.

Recent Netflix documentary The Tinder Swindler has had millions of viewers gawping at the shameless exploits of Shimon Hayut, who posed as a billionaire businessman to extract money from women he dated.

As sensational as the Hayut saga is, he’s far from a one-off. According to recent data released by Lloyds Bank, romance fraud has soared by over 16% between 2021 and 2022, with the average amount lost per victim a staggering £8,665. However, the amounts lost does vary widely between age groups, with victims between 55 and 64 losing an average of £15,957 each.

As a Lloyds Bank’s fraud prevention director puts it: “Romance scam victims don’t just lose thousands of pounds, they also have to deal with emotional betrayal, as callous scammers build relationships with victims under a veil of apparent trust and care. Their convincing backstories mean their victims think they are falling in love, when they’re actually falling for a scam.”

Romance fraudsters tend to follow a standard playbook. Once they’ve got chatting with a potential victim online, they come across as charming, flirtatious and sincere. They’ll lavish plenty of attention in order to forge what feels like a real bond. Then, when they feel the victim is emotionally invested in this supposed blossoming romance, they request money – perhaps to deal with sudden personal setbacks or emergencies.

Examples of these kinds of fake sob stories were recently highlighted by TSB Bank. One of their customers thought she was chatting with a soldier posted overseas who needed money to get home for Christmas. She sent six payments amounting to £1,200 before she realised she was being scammed. Another TSB customer ended up paying a scammer £40,000, thinking he needed it to cover police bail and accommodation costs.

Some romance fraudsters come up with painstakingly elaborate schemes. In 2021, the BBC reported the story of “Sophia” (not her real name) who got chatting to someone on a dating site. Things seemed to be going well, and Sophia genuinely believed she’d found the man she would settle down with. Even though they hadn’t yet met in person, they looked into buying a house together, with the man showing her mortgage documents and emails to solicitors (which later turned out to be fake).

As her share towards the make-believe house, Sophia sent him her life savings, as well as money she raised through loans: around £300,000 in total. It was only when she contacted her bank to verify that she had a shared account with the man that she realised no such account existed.

“You see stories, you read stories, you hear about other people's stories,” Sophia told the BBC, “but you feel like that's never going to happen to you.”

One recent romance fraudster even went as far as impersonating Hollywood superstar Nicolas Cage. According to charity Victim Support, a woman believed she was exchanging Facebook messages with Cage, who claimed he needed money for tax purposes and was hoping to visit her in the UK very soon. The woman ended up sending the fraudster around £10,000.

From subtle scammers to outlandish celebrity impersonators, romance fraud is an ever-present threat online, with some conmen working on dozens of potential marks at the same time. And, while older people are more likely to fall victim, younger singles are also increasingly being suckered in. So, how do you keep yourself as safe as possible? Here are some good rules of thumb.

Never send money to someone you don’t know

It doesn’t matter how much of a connection you feel like you have with someone you’re chatting to online. Unless you’ve met the person and have really got to know them on a personal basis, treat any request for money as a serious red flag. Keep in mind that fraudsters can be ruthless when it comes to concocting upsetting stories designed to tug on your heartstrings.

Keep your personal details to yourself

It’s not just your money that needs to be kept safe. Be wary when it comes to sharing personal information or documents. Fraudsters may come up with excuses to see photos of your passport or other ID documents, which can put you in a vulnerable position. Keep your details to yourself until you’re absolutely sure they’re for real.

Scrutinise the finer details

Trust your gut, and remember that it’s easy for people to create entirely fictitious personas online. If their photos look suspiciously glossy or model-like, you may want to try doing a reverse image search to check they haven’t been nabbed from other sites.

If someone you’ve recently matched appears to be particularly dazzling in terms of their wealth, status, or occupation, it’s worth paying close attention to the finer details of what they say and making sure it all adds up. The case of Tinder Swindler, who claimed to have been a Mossad agent and the heir to a diamond fortune to some of his victims, should be the ultimate cautionary tale.