Romance fraud happens when people are tricked into thinking they have met the perfect partner on a dating website, app or through social media, only to be scammed out of money after criminals have gained their trust.
Fraudsters may pretend to be someone they are not, using fake photos, being reluctant to meet up in person and inventing sob stories for why they need large sums of cash.
As well as tricking people into sending them money, fraudsters may gain enough information to steal their victims’ identities.
Those targeted may initially feel they are being swept up in a big romance, with fraudsters flattering their victims and putting them under pressure so they do not have time to stop and think.
As Valentine’s Day approaches on February 14, Action Fraud said the average loss per victim in 2018 was £11,145 - a 27% increase on the previous year.
In 2018, £50,766,602 was reported as lost to this scam, with 4,555 reports of romance fraud made to Action Fraud.
In a report produced by Action Fraud, 42% of victims said romance fraud had had a significant impact on their health or financial well-being.
The report showed the average age of a victim was 50, and 63% were female. Women lose twice as much on average than male victims.
With some people feeling too embarrassed to report fraud, the true scale of romance scams could be much bigger.
Action Fraud is working with the Date Safe working group to raise awareness of the risks of romance fraud in the UK.
The group’s members include Action Fraud, City of London Police, Get Safe Online, the Metropolitan Police, Age UK, Victim Support, Scamalytics and the Online Dating Association (ODA).
An awareness campaign is running on social media under the hashtag Fauxmance.
In one case, a woman lost around £10,000 to someone who claimed to be in the Army and needed money for a box of belongings to be returned to the UK, those behind the campaign said.
He gained her trust by talking about getting married and buying a house together, but she became suspicious and contacted the Foreign Office, which confirmed it was a scam.
She had used a loan and her private pension to cover the money she had sent.
Commander Karen Baxter, head of City of London Police’s economic crime department, said: “Heartless fraudsters are cruelly targeting vulnerable victims and exploiting those looking for love online.
“Together with our partners, we are urging people to spot the signs of romance fraud and to follow the Date Safe advice this Valentine’s Day and in the future.
“If you think you have been a victim of romance fraud, please report this to Action Fraud.”
George Kidd, chief executive of the ODA, said: “We ask users to stay alert online just as they would in any other walk of life: use the in-built messaging services and be wary of people who want to get you away from this.
“Be wary of those who shower you with loving messages instantly, but may not want to meet. And, no one you meet online should ever ask you for money.”
Katy Worobec, managing director of economic crime at UK Finance, said: “We are urging customers to be vigilant against romance scams and not let a fraudster fool you this Valentine’s.
“Banks are always looking out for any suspicious transactions, but we need customers to be on the guard against suspicious approaches too.
“Always be wary of any requests for money from someone you’ve never met in person.”
Diana Fawcett, chief officer at Victim Support, said: “These scams can be extremely sophisticated and victims should not feel ashamed or embarrassed and shouldn’t blame themselves in any way.”
Here are Date Safe’s tips to avoid a romance scam:
1. Do not rush into an online relationship - get to know the person, not the profile and ask plenty of questions
2. Analyse their profile and check the person is genuine by putting their name, profile pictures or any repeatedly used phrases and the term “dating scam” into your search engine
3. Talk to your friends and family about your dating choices. Be wary of anyone who tells you not to tell others about them
4. Thwart scammers by never sending money to, or sharing your bank details with, someone you have met online, no matter what reason they give or how long you have been speaking to them
5. Stay on the dating site messenger service until you are confident the person is who they say they are. If you do decide to meet in person, make sure the first meeting is in a public place and let someone else know where you are going to be