WITH Valentine’s Day on the horizon, some people will be hoping to find their perfect partner, perhaps by signing up to a few dating websites or striking up conversations on social media.
And while many do end up happily coupled-up after looking for love online, others could fall prey to the tactics of scammers – who gain their victims’ trust before manipulating them into handing over money.
Jim Winters, director of economic crime at Nationwide Building Society (nationwide.co.uk), says a typical romance scammer “triggers an emotional response that causes you to forget all the good advice you’ve had”.
Scammers may spend weeks or even months building up someone’s trust, and may then ask for several payments over a period of time.
While some romance scammers will invent “sob stories” for needing money urgently, such as them or someone they care for being unwell, others may pretend to be doing charitable work in their community.
Winters explains: “They use these worthy causes as a mask, or something that might sound like it could generate wealth for both of you in the future.
“Sometimes, the scam can be presented as an investment opportunity. It might be a business that the scammer is involved with, or purports to be involved with.”
Romance scammers may also say they live overseas, which may or may not be true. This gives them an excuse for being unable to meet in person, and may make it harder to check out any of their claims.
Winters says: “Often, romance scams are slow-burners. Like investment scams, they can go on over a long period of time, months sometimes.
“Other types of scam are ‘quick turnaround’ – you find out pretty quickly that you’ve been scammed.
“Scammers may talk about community projects, which portrays them as being socially responsible, a really wonderful human being.”
Carrying out a reverse image search of any photos that have been sent, may help to give clues about whether someone really is who they claim to be.
There may also be some warning signs that loved ones are potentially being targeted by a romance scammer.
Red flags could include the person your friend or relative is talking to professing love after a short period of time.
Your loved one may become withdrawn, or suddenly need access to money, perhaps by dipping into savings, their pension, or getting into debt.
Winters points out that some people may naturally want to keep the fact they are looking for a new relationship quiet – “so they might not be as open as they would normally be.”
But, he says, alarm bells should ring immediately if the person their loved one is talking to online starts asking for money.
“The advice we give with a purchase scam is don’t send money to someone you’ve never met, for something you’ve never seen or inspected. It’s similar for a romance scam,” he adds.
If someone has already sent money and they are concerned, Winters says they should immediately tell their bank or building society. Scams should also be reported to the police.
Banks may invoke the Banking Protocol – a rapid response scheme whereby branch staff can request an immediate police visit to investigate.
Support can also be given to the victim to help prevent similar scams in future.
Winters adds: “I’m sad to say, we speak to some romance scam victims who are still under the spell, and still insist that this person, and the relationship, is genuine.
“We see some that might start off by sending a small amount, and then another amount, and then another amount – they still haven’t met this person.
“Before you get to the end of the year, they’ve sent tens of thousands of pounds. It illustrates the strength of the spell, and the hold that the scammer has over the victim.”
Getting a second opinion can be a great way to sense check whether something sounds plausible.
But not everyone has someone close they can talk to, and some may not feel comfortable speaking to family and friends.
Nationwide has a ‘scam checker’ service, which enables members to check an electronic payment they are worried about, either in branch or by phone. For users of this service, if the payment goes ahead and the member is subsequently scammed, unless the Society has told the member not to make the payment, they will be fully reimbursed.
While people may feel embarrassed about speaking to their bank or building society, Winters reassures: “You’re not alone. Far better to be safe.
“Far better to take a bit of time to ask some questions.”