Romantic love lies at the heart of human emotions. Books on it make authors' fortunes, it keeps thousands of Hollywood actors, scriptwriters and directors in work producing ghastly romcoms and it underpins whole industries from card shops to wedding venues.

It also attracts some of the most heartless thieves who will work very hard to destroy that vision of romantic love whilst detaching you from your savings.

It is estimated that cyber con artists who target dating websites are defrauding people of around £34m per year, and this is growing. Action Fraud reported that the number of cases reported in the year to April 2017 was 3,127 up from 2,561 the previous year. Now this may not seem a lot compared with domestic burglaries (205,869) or even bicycle theft (94,487) but each case represents heartbreak and disillusion for people who may be lonely and desperate for romance.

One such fraudster, Kerryann Williams posed as an attractive woman online to defraud 19 victims of around £20,000. Her victims were mainly pensioners who took pity on her sob stories and handed over money and in one case nine mobile phones to her different profiles on which he is still paying the contracts. She used websites such as Plenty of Fish, Tagged.com, Hi5.com and, of course, Facebook.

Commonly these fraudsters carry out extensive research into their victims. Having identified a possible victim the fraudster will check out their profiles on Facebook, LinkedIn and any other social media sites. If the victim states that they like hang gliding the fraudster will research hang gliding so as to be able to discuss hang gliding knowledgably on line. As the victim opens up the fraudster will find other areas of common interest so the victim begins to feel they have found their soulmate. These fraudsters will spend weeks on research and months grooming their victims before the question of money is ever mentioned.

It is akin to tickling trout. Any sudden movements will scare the prey away so softly does it. The intention is to embroil the victim into a situation where calm and rational judgement is suspended. Often victims are professional, well educated people, people who feel they are too clever to be caught out by a scammer and so tend to believe what they are being told because it can’t happen to them. Often they have an idealised vision of romantic love and this is their downfall.

Once they have the victim's e-mail address and phone number scammers will chat romantically, send pictures (fake) of activities they have been engaged in which are the type of activities the victim also likes, places they have seen which are co-incidentally also places the victim has been to and seen. They are as one.

Then comes the money requests – small amounts to start with to 'meet a sudden crisis' or an 'emergency' loan. Sometimes the scammer will borrow money and pay it back just to cement the relationship. Ultimately the victim will, over a period of time, have parted with thousands and in extreme cases tens of thousands.

And don't forget this is just one individual the scammer is working on, they may have several victims on the go at the same time. These are organised and clever people who will take all your money and blow it on a holiday.

If you don't want to be caught out there are some simple precautions. Don't put all your details out there. Never share addresses or full real names, check the privacy settings on Facebook and Instagram so they can't find you and don't use the same photos on all your sites. Never, ever give people you don't know and have never met your bank details.

How to spot the danger signs? Beware people who look particularly attractive, often these are model photos taken from the Internet; be suspicious if they don't want to meet or if they keep missing agreed meetings because of some 'unforeseen' event. The last thing they want is for you to look them in the face. Once the money request comes in discuss it with friends and colleagues – scammers rely on warped judgement so a spot of cold reality can work wonders. If they ask for your financial information break off contact and report them to the website.

The key to being a successful scammer is the psychological phenomenon known as 'distancing'. Scammers simply find a way of justifying their dysfunctional behaviour so that it fits in with their personal standards of what they consider to be right or wrong.

Research into this aspect of white collar crime has revealed that one way of doing this is for the criminal to distance themselves from the victim so fraudsters often adopt various distancing techniques such as:

 

  • claiming their actions were caused by forces beyond the perpetrator's control – e.g. some sort of need real or perceived – 'I really needed the money'
  • stating that anyone condemning the actions of the perpetrator was doing out of spite as it was really not their fault – 'I don't know what came over me'
  • the victim is demeaned or seen as stupid – 'serves them right'
  • the victim is seen as somehow culpable - it's their own fault.
  • any loss or damage to the victim is minimized – 'well they're insured'