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All you need is love

Romance fraud is one of the most evil types of fraud. It targets those who are often emotionally damaged through bereavement or divorce and exploits their need to be wanted and loved.

Where most types of fraud are largely impersonal without any real or lengthy interaction with the victim, this deception is the complete opposite as it relies upon creating and developing a close personal relationship over weeks or months. The victim is encouraged to bare their innermost hopes and fears, and in doing so places a huge amount of trust in the person they truly believe is their soul mate - rather than someone attempting to scam them out of their life savings.

As a former fraudster myself, it seems disingenuous to single out romance fraudsters as any more evil than other types of scammer; however, there is something about their methodology that seems to attract a certain type of fraudster who is able to turn sociopathic tendencies on/off.

I also take the view that this type of fraud has a much more lengthy and profound effect than any other type. The purpose of all fraud is to dupe the victim into giving money to the fraudster and clearly this is no different. Whilst the majority of all victims also suffer some form of emotional trauma (which in the main they eventually get over by putting the whole thing down to experience) the victims of romance fraud suffer much more. Not only can it prevent them from looking for love again, it can also even deter them from making friends with anyone at all. Even I consider that a step too far!

The Unseen World of Romance Fraud

This has never been my ‘thing,’ though I know a few guys who make an absolute fortune from this. While all types of fraud bear the risk that you will be caught, the chances here are massively reduced, because so few victims actually report it to police. This is often because victims would be too embarrassed to admit that they were so lonely that they resorted to some form of dating site to try to find a partner. On top of that, they suffered the humiliation of being scammed by someone they believed they were in a relationship with. While Internet dating is perfectly normal for teens through to thirty-somethings, lots of people over the age of 40 still see it as a taboo and a bit desperate.

Things are changing (slowly) but it is this slow pace of change that the romance fraudsters hook into. I’m going to tell you a bit about a particular guy who likes to think he is an expert in this field. He is in his early thirties, has a middle-management job in retail, and is married with one child. He lives in a tree-lined suburban street and his wife professes not to have a clue about how he funds their lifestyle. Their daughter attends an expensive private school, and they both drive cars that are less than two years old. They enjoy first-class flights to exotic locations twice a year, and they wear matching Rolex watches. His wife must believe he manages their money exceptionally well - or she is ignoring the blindingly obvious. His salary is about £45,000 a year, but his lifestyle would suggest at least 6x that. If anyone asks (or makes a snide comment) regarding how well they live, she passes it off as his luck with the stock market.

He indulges his ‘hobby’ in the small bedroom he has turned into an office. One wall contains floor-to-ceiling shelves of box files. Each is neatly labelled with a name and a category e.g., ‘Jane’ and ‘Recently Widowed,’ or ‘Sue’ and ‘Divorcee’. He adopts a different persona for each category; to widows he will be the doting husband who recently lost his wife. His approach to such divorcees would be diffident, slowly exploring the reasons behind her divorce before deciding on how best to befriend her.

Exploiting Loneliness

The common factors in both categories are (a) these women are lonely - evidenced by the fact that they are on the dating site in the first place, and (b) there is a good chance they have money, either from their husband’s will, or as a result of their divorce. The latter is of overriding importance, as if they do not have enough money to make this worthwhile, they are of no interest whatsoever. In his ‘day- job,’ he would regard this as a simple cost-benefit analysis.

At this point, it might be worth pausing to reflect for a moment; what type of guy (female romance fraudsters do exist) can play football with his kids, sit down for a family meal, read them a bedtime story -- and then sit down at his computer, and shamelessly manipulate someone who yearns to be loved or is at their lowest ebb following the death of their partner? Whilst he jokingly refers to this as his 'hobby' (and I have no medical qualifications whatsoever) I think most people would prefer to call it 'sociopathic behaviour'.

Crafting a Deceptive Persona 

So how does he approach ‘Jane the Widow’? Despite the assurances provided by the dating sites that they verify all their members, he has never once been asked an awkward question or come close to being rumbled by the oversight regimes put in place to detect fraudsters. First of all, he creates a back story. A name, together with an email address and a photograph is the first step. As there is the possibility that a prospective partner will search the web for the image he has supplied (, he has found various ways around this. The one I find most ingenious is to approach a good-looking couple of the correct age in the street. He tells the guy that he is the living double of his wife’s brother, and he needs a quick photo to make her laugh. It works every time!

He finds Jane on the dating site and sends a polite message, complimenting her on her looks, and perhaps suggesting she reminds him of someone he once loved. Once contact is established, rather than eager, he remains coy and a little reticent. Jane finds this a bit of a challenge and, unusually, finds herself in the role of the hunter rather than the prey. She probes him for further information and he slowly ‘opens up’ to her. He describes himself as an engineer helping rebuild a war torn country and can’t wait for his next period of leave which is only three months away. By adopting this backstory, he explains why he cannot meet up in the near future - and absence makes the heart grow fonder.

He slowly reveals his heartache over the death of his beloved wife following her chronic illness/skydiving accident/brain tumour (delete as applicable) and nobody could take her place. In return Jane tells him about how she feels robbed of her husband who died far too young. The key to his communication is ‘little and often’ from a brief message saying ‘Just wondering how your day is going?’ or ‘I really enjoyed chatting to you last night - I can’t believe I’ve found a kindred spirit.’

Building Trust: The Long Game

This is a medium to long-term strategy where patience is a virtue, but there is nothing virtuous about him. While he is ‘chatting’ to Jane, he makes copious notes on their discussions; the names of her children/pets, her favourite perfume, what kind of food she prefers, and ensures that he refers to those facts in future conversations to reinforce his fondness for her and make her feel that she is ‘special.’ His notes also contain a ‘gullibility’ star-rating as a measure of how much he thinks he can scam from her.

Under ‘normal’ circumstances, Jane is one of about half a dozen potential victims, each with their own box file and prepared backstory. The best analogy I can give you is playing cards with six different opponents at the same time. He needs to give each the attention they deserve, so that the game continues, and he knows that he is going to win (big) in at least two of them. Last year, he bragged he had a 40% success rate and ‘earned’ himself over £350,000. Not bad for a hobby.

There comes a time in the relationship when he suggests that they should continue their dialogue somewhere more ‘private,’ and gives Jane his personal mobile number. In reality it’s a ‘burner’ phone (cheap and disposable) with a Pay As You Go SIM card, so while his outlay is modest, he is ‘trusting’ Jane with his personal contact details. She feels obliged to do the same. This is known as ‘reciprocity,’ and is incredibly powerful. Next time you go on holiday and are offered ‘free’ tea in a souk or bazaar, might I suggest you politely refuse. By accepting the ‘free’ gift’ you subconsciously feel obliged to give something in return, usually your money. There is no such thing as a free lunch, or even a free cup of tea.

Now that their chat is away from the dating site, he can be a lot more open with her: He begins to provide more detail about himself. This is when he introduces the first test. If Jane refuses to divulge her private email address or insists on staying on the dating site messaging platform, he drops her like a hot stone. This is a ‘numbers game’ and if she is that cautious already, she is not going to be an easy target later. There are plenty more where she came from. One of his favourite catchphrases is that ‘dating sites are a target-rich environment’.

He now needs to test her trust in him for a second time. He tells her that he is on a business trip in a remote part of the country, and has lost his wallet with his tickets, cash and cards. He needs to buy a new return ticket for £90 and promises he will send her the money the following day. Jane feels a bit awkward, but nevertheless agrees to his request. When she wakes up the following day, the money has already been repaid and there is a jaunty dancing emoticon attached to a brief email thanking her for trusting him. The truth is that he never left his bedroom, and she passes the test with flying colours.

A week or so later he gives off a few hints that things are not well but doesn’t go into detail. Jane pleads with him to tell her, so she can better understand him. He discloses that his business employs a lot of local labour, who in turn rely upon their wages to feed their children. Unfortunately, he has a cash-flow problem caused by the host government failing to pay his company on time. He tells Jane that he has a deadline to pay suppliers, otherwise the business will go under, and he will have to make dozens of people redundant. He regularly resorts to sobbing down the phone in these circumstances.

Financial Hit: From Small Loans to Larger Sums

Jane asks him how much he needs and for how long. He puts up token resistance with something like, “Jane, I think we have the potential for something special together, but I can’t ask you to do this.” Jane persists and he ‘reluctantly’ agrees to her offer of help. He normally goes for £20,000. He promises her she will have the money back within a week or so. Jane transfers the money.

Depending on the ‘gullibility star-rating’ (see above) the story can end there. He disappears with her money and despite hundreds of phone calls and emails, she will never hear from him again. However, if they score highly (5 star = super-gullible) he goes in for a second bite of the cherry. After a couple of days, he rings her again, explaining that he has been arrested by the local militia and will not be released until various people have been bribed. He is particularly upset as he is now in possession of the original £20,000, she loaned him, and once he is freed he will pay this back together with the £10,000 worth of bribes he needs to pay up front. Believe it or not, Jane(s) regularly sends him the additional £10,000.

Jane has now lost either £20,000 or £30,000. I’m not sure whether or not she could hear those little voices in her head telling her that ‘this doesn’t feel right,’ or if she just chose to ignore them. More often than not, Jane doesn’t report the scam to police as she is too embarrassed. This scam is as effective with surgeons as it is with shop assistants, as it plays upon the human need to be loved.

The dating sites are aware of these scams and are well-intentioned in attempting to eradicate them, however, they do not employ those who understand the methodology employed by fraudsters. Until they do, Jane is unlikely to meet her Tarzan anytime soon, however, she will meet plenty of ‘Cheetahs.’

Tips to Prevent Falling Victim to Scams

  • If you have been chatting to the other person via the messaging system on a dating app, continue to use it for as long as possible. Fraudsters will try to persuade you to move to email/text/WhatsApp as they do not want to risk being monitored
  • If the other person has provided their mobile number and claims to be in the UK, hide your Caller ID (in ‘settings’ on your smart phone) so your number doesn’t appear. Ring them, and if you hear a foreign ring tone you should be very suspicious
  • Do a reverse image search on Google to see if the photograph on their dating profile has been published elsewhere on the Internet
  • Ask to have a brief video call. Most people have smartphones these days and anyone who refuses or makes excuses as to why they can’t do this should raise your suspicions
  • Do some research on other Social Media platforms, anyone who has no presence whatsoever is very unusual
  • Be realistic. If the person you are chatting to looks like a supermodel, unless you are equally as attractive, they might be flattering you with a view to scamming you
  • Ask a family member or trusted friend to objectively review the other person. Sometimes a fresh pair of eyes, can be incredibly useful
  • Refuse to send any money, irrespective of the alleged reason the person gives you. Even sending a small amount convinces them you are gullible and they will come back for much larger amounts

Download our 'Top Tips to prevent you from becoming a victim of Romance Fraud' leaflet