Romance fraud tactics warning from West Yorkshire Police detective as Leeds victim targeted by online scammer
Anyone could find themselves targeted by sophisticated online scammers using promises of friendship and love to groom their victims, a criminal investigator has warned as one Leeds woman revealed she had lost £5,000 to fraudsters.
Detective Inspector Leanne Walker compared many of the tactics involved in romance fraud as being similar to those seen in cases of coercive control, with emotional connections and trust built up over the course of many months then used to manipulate people.
A member of West Yorkshire Police’s Economic Crime Unit, she said: “The suspects are sophisticated, extremely patient and groom their victim. They spend a lot of time building that trust and relationship.
“Romance fraud isn’t just something that affects vulnerable people. It’s something absolutely anybody can fall victim to. They’re very clever, manipulative individuals.”
One such victim is ‘Anne’, a woman in her early 60s who lives in west Leeds. She had limited experience of the internet when she received a friend request on social media from a scammer posing as an American soldier named William.
“I thought it was genuine,” she said. “I’ve never been online before and I didn’t know there were scammers on there.
“It was three years ago, on Facebook first. He got in touch as a friend request. He said he was in Afghanistan.”
Fraudsters will often create fake profiles claiming to be soldiers, doctors, charity workers or others in a position of authority because they are widely seen as trusted members of society, Det Insp Walker said.
“It can help them to legitimise reasons why they can’t see the person, can’t be in contact or need things to be kept secret,” she said.
“Claiming to live abroad is one of the signs that would be a red flag to me, asking to keep your relationship private, making excuses why they can’t meet.”
She advised against accepting any friend requests from people you do not already know or recognise.
“It’s a really common method of fraudsters contacting victims,” she said. “They want to get a hook. Once they get that, they would then start to likely research their victims.
“There’s an open line of communication there which is an opportunity to a fraudster. They’ll keep a running log of conversations. They know exactly what’s been said by each party along the way which helps them to look like there’s investment in that relationship.”
Anne and William began talking online regularly, swapping messages via email and social media most days. There were promises of visits to the UK that never materialised and suggestions made about Anne moving out to America so that they could live together.
“He asked for £300 once so he could come over here to meet me in England, then he made an excuse that he had done his knee in,” she said. “He always made excuses about why he couldn’t do it.
“Another was for iTunes cards so he could update his phone and things like that. They were smaller sums but it all mounts up, doesn’t it?
“I should have kicked him into touch. I’ve made a big mistake in believing in a person like that.”
Over the course of the three years that she was in touch with William, Anne estimates that she was scammed out of £5,000.
Det Insp Walker said: “It’s common for initial requests to be lower to test the water and see what the response is, what they get back and how fruitful their relationship is.”
She said scammers will drip feed information weeks or months in advance to help legitimise requests for money later on.
She added: “Some can be in contact for years and years and, ultimately, people can lose a lot of money, or people can take what they can get from that particular victim and then move on.”
More than £68m was lost to romance fraud by UK victims in 2020, something which Det Insp Walker said shows everybody is susceptible to it given the right circumstances.
“Romance fraud is something that affects your heart and your purse,” she said. “The building of trust in that initial period is crucial.
“It’s a form of grooming. It’s about building that emotional connection and trust. When you’ve got that connection and trust, as a human, you want to make that person happy, you want to help.
“I would say it’s akin to coercive control that’s linked to domestic abuse. It’s very manipulative but the victim can’t see it because of the false reality created by the fraudster.
“It can be hard for anybody who is in that particular situation and finds themselves in those circumstances. Their whole belief system is being challenged and turned on its head. At this point, you want to believe that it’s true.”
When Anne came to realise that she was being conned, William tried to make her jealous by talking about another woman and on other occasions sent abusive messages.
“He’s conned me for money,” she said. “He’s getting no more out of me and I’ve told him that. I’m not stupid, not anymore.
“I really liked him until I found he was a fake. We were going to live in America. He even mentioned a Green Card to live out there - then he said I’m using him to get out there. He’s called me a scammer.”
She said she had blocked him on social media but he started sending emails, with threats being made about publishing fake nude images of her online.
Hearing about the tactics adopted, Det Insp Walker said: “If you’re under attack, the first thing you will do is fire that back.
“It’s about the relationship you’ve built up and getting the victim into your clutches, guilt tripping the victim, making them anxious to please.
“The thought of losing that connection would leave a huge void in a victim’s life. Losing that could be like the loss of a relationship.”
For Anne, the experience has left her feeling suicidal at times. She said: “I’m getting like I don’t trust anybody. Sometimes I don’t even want to go downstairs or anywhere because of this.
“I want to warn everybody else about this sort of thing. It could be anybody that could fall for it.”
Accepting that you have been a victim of fraud is extremely complicated, according to Detective Inspector Leanne Walker.
“It’s a very under-reported crime,” she said. “Self-reporting is particularly low because victims might feel shame or denial.
“They shouldn’t feel ashamed or embarrassed.”
She stressed the importance of reporting suspected fraud as soon as it is discovered.
“You must contact your bank immediately and report it to Action Fraud,” she said.
“The police and Action Fraud can investigate incidents after they’ve occurred, however these people who have profiles on various social media platforms or go on dating sites will be targeting numerous people. If you tell the service providers, they can freeze their accounts to help prevent other people falling victim.”
The Yorkshire Evening Post’s Stop The Scammers campaign aims to raise awareness of scams and how to spot them so that our readers can better protect themselves, their friends and their families.
Det Insp Walker said that you should be very wary of someone asking you lots of question but giving little information about themselves. She also advised against taking conversations off the original social media or dating site.
No matter how long you have been speaking to someone online, she warned against:
* Sending money to someone you have not met in person;
* Giving someone access to your bank account;
* Taking a loan out on someone else’s behalf;
* Buying, sending or receiving items such as laptops or mobile phones;
* Investing your own money into a scheme on their advice;
* Providing copies of personal documents.
To report a fraud, visit www.actionfraud.police.uk or call 0300 123 2040.
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