Valentine’s Day 2023 is fast-approaching, with many people likely to be scrambling around for date ideas and greetings cards.
So, how does romance fraud work – and what have banks said about the issue? Here’s everything you need to know.
What is romance fraud?
Romance fraud, or catfishing, is a form of scam in which a criminal builds up a relationship with their victim – mostly online, sometimes over the phone, but very rarely in person – to the point where they secure the victim’s trust. They then tend to emotionally manipulate the person into giving them money.
This manipulation tends to take the form of a sad backstory, such as a health problem necessitating treatment requiring big medical bills or financial hardship as a result of the cost of living crisis. People could be inclined to give them the money because not only do they trust the fraudster, but they may think helping them will strengthen their romantic bond.
Thanks to the proliferation of online dating and social media apps over recent years – most of which allow people to set up fake identities, or impersonate real people – this type of ploy has become much easier for criminals to carry out. But there is division over whether instances of the crime are on the up.
According to Nationwide analysis of its customer data, the number of romance scams fell 17% year-on-year between 2021 and 2022 – although the average amount of money lost per crime jumped 150% over this period from £4,720 to £11,796. But Lloyds reported that instances of the crime among its customers climbed 30% over the same period, while the amount of money lost fell only marginally – from £8,655 to £8,234.
What all the banks agree on, however, is that middle-aged people are most likely to fall victim to this form of scam. New figures from TSB show 51 to 65-year-olds make up 46% of losses to romance fraud, while Nationwide found over-45s accounted for 63% of cases (although this was an 11 percentage point drop on the previous year).
The building society also found the proportion of romance fraud crimes being reported by victims aged 33 and under almost doubled – rising from 15% of all crimes to 28%. The split between men and women was roughly equal.
But whilst you might think most romance fraud would take place around Valentine’s Day, Nationwide found the month with the highest number of cases was September in 2022 having been June in 2021.
How exactly does romance fraud work?
Alongside their research, Lloyds, Nationwide and TSB have all provided brief rundowns of how a typical romance fraud scam will work.
The banks say the scam will typically start with a scammer trawling through social media or dating apps to find their ideal victim (for example, someone who has a clear interest in something they can relate to – like dogs – or an obvious hobby, like travelling), before initiating contact. They may then attempt to move the conversation over to an encrypted messaging platform, such as WhatsApp.
At first, the fraudster will come across as caring and attentive, the banks say, messaging frequently with the victim over a period of months in a bid to build trust and give the relationship the impression of being genuine. They might appear to become besotted very quickly, declaring strong feelings of love.
Lloyds says the criminal will often claim to be living or working abroad – something that will mean they cannot meet up with the victim in person. They may also come up with reasons for why they cannot appear on video calls.
After they feel like they’ve built up a sufficient level of trust with their victim the scammer may start to slip stories about personal crises into conversation. These may include issues like business problems, legal disputes or medical bills. Initially, they might reject any offers of help to appear genuine.
When they finally do accept financial assistance they will usually ask for several payments, with the amount of money climbing as time goes on. According to TSB’s research, the average amount of time between the first payment and the last is 53 days.
A quarter of the cases involving losses of more than £10,000 that were recorded by TSB saw the victim take out loans to support their online lover.
How can you avoid romance fraud?
By being aware of the red flags and taking certain precautions, you can guard yourself against romance fraud. Tell-tale signs of a romance scam include:
- A profile photo that’s too good to be true
- Inconsistencies in their backstory
- Demands to keep the relationship a secret from friends and family
- A lack of personalisation (they may refer to you as ‘babe’ or ‘honey’ rather than by your real name – usually because they’ll have several scams on the go at once)
- Script-like language
- They don’t want to chat via video or meet up in person
- The scammer asks for money because of a personal crisis of some sort
To avoid being scammed, keep your conversations on well-known social media or dating apps. Once you have met the person in the flesh you can then consider moving your chats elsewhere.
It may also help to do a bit of research into them before getting too serious. Look them up across different social media sites, or at the company they say they work at, to see if their backstory adds up.
You may also reduce your chances of being targeted if you hold back personal information until your first face-to-face meeting. So, for example, you could set up your social media account so that only existing friends can see what you enjoy doing. That way, they can’t fool you into thinking they like exactly the same things as you.
If your online partner starts requesting money, you should talk to your friends, family – or even your bank – about it. They may be able to connect the dots and tell you you’re being scammed (although this is likely to be a difficult conversation).
All three banks have information and reporting services for their customers. They are listed below:
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