A hidden army of ruthless international cyber criminals are fleecing people of all ages and backgrounds across Northern Ireland who log onto the internet looking for love, the PSNI has revealed.
It is estimated that romance fraud costs the UK at least £39m a year, but the PSNI believes the vast majority of victims in Northern Ireland are too embarrassed to come forward – or may not even realise they have been scammed.
The number of UK cases rose by more than a fifth last year with victims losing on average £11,000, according to figures obtained by Johnston Press investigations.
Northern Ireland man ‘John’ lost up to £10,000 through a romance scam between June and December 2016.
“I started to go through the sites and I picked up on a few people that I liked and through time they actually came back to me,” he said.
“We got to know each other and then after a few weeks they were saying ‘my son had died’ or ‘my sister had died’ or ‘my father is ill’ – would I be willing to send them something to help?
“Not particularly money, in most cases they actually asked me to buy things like Apple phones, iPads, that sort of thing.
“The bank that I was with, they noticed that my account had an awfully large amount being taken out of it. They actually put me in touch with their fraud team.
“What the people in the bank were saying to me is ‘you could be looking at a female face on the dating site but it could be men behind it. It is not always the person you see in the photograph that is actually doing it’.
“My local bank were exemplary. Once they caught on to what was happening they put a hold on my account and they spoke to me and explained to me exactly what was happening.”
His bank told him to call them any time for help.
Now his advice to others about online romance is this: “If they give you a sob story and they start asking for money, step back, don’t do it. Don’t give them money.”
PSNI Supt Simon Walls, who specialises in fraud awareness, was surprised to find there is no typical profile of victim – and that even educated professionals are falling foul of it.
“In terms of romance fraud when we initially started looking at it, I had it in my head what the typical demographic might be but it is not,” he told the News Letter.
“It appears that any age and any gender can fall victim to romance fraud. I had it in my head that it would be people in their middle to later years in life who were maybe lonely after a bereavement or divorce but it is really like any scam, it is no respecter of age or situation.”
He added: “Typically a romance scam is initiated when someone goes online and looks for an online relationship with another individual, male or female.”
The scammers are typically operating outside the jurisdiction – for example the Philippines or Singapore.
“Someone hooks up with someone online. A type of relationship is then developed between two people. At a certain point in the relationship – and it can be quite quickly – a request for money comes.”
The given reason can be a family crisis, medical fees for a mother or child or because they have crashed their car.
“So if someone says, yes, I will send you £500 then the requests tend to come thick and fast after that, again, a range of crises being created.”
A more recent trend is requests for iPhones or iPads instead of cash.
In the past financial year there were around 4,000 reported romance frauds in the UK and only 58 in Northern Ireland, he said.
“But obviously that is way under reported. The quoted UK loss through romance fraud was £39m but we assume all those figures are way under reported.”
Someone who sends the odd £100 every six months may not even realise they are being scammed.
“People don’t want to come forward and say they thought they had found the love of their life online and the love of their life turned out to be ... a 40-year-old male who was ripping them off for everything they had.”
He added: “Often it is people who have a professional career, who are well off, who lose lots of money but don’t want to come forward ... through the fear of appearing stupid.”
And if someone loses £500 PSNI resources may often be better used against burglary rather than pursuing someone in the Philippines who takes significant steps to disguise their identity.