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Romance fraud: how to stay safe online

Romance fraud, or dating fraud is on the rise; in 2020 dating scams cost their victims £68m. But what is it, and how can you avoid falling for it?

What is romance fraud?

Romance fraud, sometimes known as dating fraud, or dating scams, is a specific kind of bank transfer fraud where perpetrators seek to entice their victims by pretending that they are in a relationship, or are desiring a relationship. 

Unlike some of the other phishing scams, romance fraud is a slow burn; the perpetrator takes their time with their victim, rather than asking (or demanding) money right away. It’s for this reason that even the most tech aware can fall victim to one of these scams; it doesn’t look like the phishing scam we’ve come to expect.

How does a typical dating scam work?

Dating scams often start through online dating apps; a person signs up to an application like OkCupid, and starts swiping through potential partners. Scammers create profiles to look like a genuine person (although it can sometimes be a team of people running a single account), and when they swipe right, the romance fraud can begin. 

As the initial conversations on dating apps usually take place over text, there doesn’t often appear to be anything suspicious about the scammer. They are likely to present as a very receptive partner, eager to have conversations and share their wants for the future. Usually there is a period of ‘love bombing’; the scammer will be enticing the victim through a huge amount of affection, and will often be keen to settle down. 

Although a romance fraud progresses at a much slower rate than your typical phishing scam, these are often ‘whirlwind romances’. They will likely mention their business, home life and future plans, as this allows the scammer to return to these subjects and ask for money at a later date. They will ask a lot of questions, in order to gain information they can use, and also talk about how they want to get married, buy a house and move in with their victim.

Once they have laid the groundwork, they ask for money from their victim. This can be to secure a deposit on a house or wedding for the two of them, or it can be a failed business venture or a health issue that will provoke an emotional response in the victim. It is often an emergency, and the perpetrator will pretend to be highly distressed. All of this will create a sense of urgency for the victim, who will often send money in order to help.

Think you wouldn’t fall for it? Think again

One of the key parts of romance fraud, and the reason it is so effective as a way of acquiring money from a victim is that it is long-term manipulation. Just like grooming, and coercive control, perpetrators are able to exploit their victims and gaslight them into making decisions that they would not normally make. 

Anyone, regardless of their knowledge, age or experience, can fall victim to a dating scam. The scammers use the relationship with their victim as leverage to coerce and manipulate more and more financial aid, until the victim becomes suspicious. The victim can also be in denial for a long time, as accepting the relationship is a lie can be too devastating. Like domestic abuse, the perpetrator may also have isolated them from their friends and family.

How can you stay safe from romance fraud?

To stay safe from romance fraud, you should always be suspicious of a person who is very affectionate and makes a lot of promises about the future, but is unable to meet in person. Be on the lookout for anyone who discourages you from sharing information about the relationship with your friends and family, and those who are trying to rush or panic you into sending money or information.

The best way to stay safe is to never transfer money to anyone you’ve never met, or allow them to access your bank accounts. If your partner asks for identification, investments or loans, be on your guard. Remember, a partner should never pressure you into something you feel unsure about. 

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