New online research led by the University of Leicester reveals that over 200,000 people living in Britain may have fallen victim to online romance scams – far more than had been previously estimated. The study is believed to be the first formal academic analysis to measure the scale of this growing problem.
In the 'online romance scam' criminals set up fake identities using stolen photographs (often of models or army officers) and pretend to develop a romantic relationship with their victim. This is often done using online dating sites and social networking sites. At some point during the relationship they pretend to be in urgent need of money and ask for help. Many victims have been persuaded to part with large sums of money before their suspicions are aroused.
Researchers found that 52% of people surveyed online had heard of the online romance scam when it was explained to them, and that one in every 50 online adults (2%) know someone personally who had fallen victim to it.
This confirms the belief held by law enforcement agencies that this type of crime is often not reported by those affected, in many cases due to embarrassment at having been duped, or through a continuing hope that there will eventually be a genuine romance.
Action Fraud, the national fraud reporting and advice centre run by the National Fraud Authority, identified 592 victims of this crime between 2010-11. Of these victims, 203 individuals lost over £5,000.
According to the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) romance fraud is organised crime, usually operating from outside the UK. Criminal groups make initial contact with potential victims through online dating sites and social networking sites, and will try to move the ‘relationship’ away from monitored online space before defrauding people of what can amount to large sums of money.
In some cases, even when victims cannot, or will not, send money, scammers involve them instead in money laundering by asking them to accept money into their bank accounts.
Investigations by SOCA have seen financial losses experienced by victims of online romance scams of between £50 and £240,000.
Read more about this story on the University of Leicester website.
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To report a fraud, call Action Fraud on 0300 123 2040 or use our online fraud reporting tool.