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People in Essex looking for love have been deceived into handing over £5.3m to romance fraudsters in the past two years.
There were 145 cases reported to Essex Police in 2020 with more than £3m lost – an average of more than £20,000 per victim.
In 2021, there was a significant jump in reported cases with 234 victims coming forward, with £2.3m of losses.
Nationally, 8,863 romance frauds were reported between October 2020 and November 2021, with losses of £91.9m.
However, it is widely believed that romance fraud is significantly underreported.
The frauds are mainly the work of organised criminal gangs, many of whom are based overseas.
The fraudsters can groom victims for as long as a year, gaining their trust over many hours of conversation online or on the phone, sharing supposedly intimate secrets and often having a backstory likely to make the victim empathise with them. This makes requests for money appear legitimate and justifiable.
The fraudsters then use the information the victim shares about their life and family to manipulate or even threaten them, asking them for cash and gifts, or to launder money through their bank accounts.
Since October 2020, Essex Police has run a peer support group for romance fraud victims in partnership with Essex Victim Support.
Two members of the group have recently agreed to share their stories in the hope that other people can avoid falling into the same traps.
Clare, 49, is a businesswoman from the west of Essex with two grown-up children. She said losing more than £13,000 to two men she met on dating apps left her feeling “stupid and ashamed”.
Clare was married to the father of her children for more than twenty years but began dating online following their divorce.
In 2015, she was contacted by a man called Michael who claimed to be based in Sudan with the US Army. He said he was widowed with a young son.
Clare said: “At first, it was only a friendship but then he started telling me how lovely I was, then he started declaring his undying love.”
Michael first asked for Clare to send over some toiletries and after the request for an iPhone was refused, he asked for cash.
“It was small amounts at first as he said he’d left bank card in the US,” said Clare, “but then he was asking for more and more.”
A proposed trip to see Clare ended with Michael apparently calling her from a Paris prison to say he’d been detained for bringining in gold from Sudan and needed to pay a fine.
Clare refused but was then called by someone who claimed to be from the airport. He said Michael was her responsibility and that he would be in prison for years if she didn’t pay up. He became verbally abusive when Clare again refused to transfer money.
She was also contacted by a senior US Army officer to tell her Michael was suicidal.
Michael returned home but Clare was contacted again by a boy claiming to be Michael’s son. He said his dad had been in a car accident, was in hospital and they needed money to pay his medical bills.
“He was sending me pictures of this person being taken away by an ambulance, but it didn’t even look like him,” Clare said.
The son became “really aggressive and abusive”, so Clare blocked him and everyone else associated with Michael.
In more than a year, she had sent him £6,000.
Clare said: “They’re so good at finding things about you and one time I did say, ‘This is a scam,’ but he sent me a picture of him with my name and the date. Looking back, you can tell it’s photoshopped.
“You’re frightened of not paying because if you don’t, you’re worried you won’t get any of your money back.”
Clare wrote the money off but didn’t think she’d fall into the same trap again.
However, in February 2020, after a breaking up with a boyfriend, Clare began looking for friendship online again.
She was messaged by an American man called George Adams. He claimed to live in Germantown, Baltimore, and own a construction business. The pictures he sent Clare showed a big house and several expensive cars.
He also claimed to be widowed with a young son.
Clare said: “We were chatting and he seemed really pleasant. He said he’d won a big construction contact just outside of Cape Town – a shopping mall with apartments.
“He would phone me every day and we’d be on the phone for hours talking about our days and families, but of course he was finding out information about me.
“It was quite a while before he asked me for anything. He was grooming me. This went on for nine or ten months. He must have written down every single detail I told him.”
George gave Clare access to a Swiss bank account he said he was having issues with.
Clare was asked to do some bank transfers on George’s behalf.
Clare said: “He had a lot of money in this bank account, at least half a million dollars, it all looked legitimate. But one time it didn’t work and he wanted to transfer the account into my name, which he then did without telling me.”
George told Clare the bank wouldn’t let her do any transfers until a tax bill was paid.
“He made me feel so guilty, like it was all my fault. He asked for another thousand, and then there were more and more excuses. He was always constantly on at me for more and more. In the end it was £7,000.”
George then tried to deposit £30,000 into Clare’s account. This was blocked by Clare’s bank and the police became involved. Clare’s personal and business accounts were temporarily frozen, leaving her unable to pay her staff.
“I was in a terrible state, but the fraud squad and the police have been absolutely brilliant. They told me about how to search my name to see if anyone had tried to open any accounts in my name, which they had.”
Clare is now a member of the Romance Fraud Peer Support Group that is led by Protect Prevent Fraud Officer David Gillies with help from Essex Victim Support Services. She said the group had been great source of comfort.
“The group has been really good. It’s nice to know you’re not the only one. By talking to other people, you do help each other. We’ve all been conned and it’s so hurtful because you’ve put your trust in someone.
“I feel stupid and ashamed about the money I’ve lost. It’s made me very wary of people. You read these stories and people say, ‘I can’t believe they’ve been so stupid to fall for it,’ but you don’t realise how easily it happens until you’ve been through it.”
Tony, 50, is separated from his wife and has two teenage children. When the country went into lockdown in March 2020, he joined online dating site Plenty of Fish.
He soon started chatting to two women, Jess and Sabina, and quickly struck up a bond with them both.
The conversations left the regulated confines of the dating site and Tony began video calling the women via Skype, with the chats becoming “full on”.
Jess told him she was living with her grandfather in Cumbria after splitting from her partner and was in the process of selling her house, leaving her short of money.
Initially, Jess asked for small amounts of cash, usually £50 or £60 a time. Tony said he “didn’t think anything of it”.
Wisely, he insisted that he would only send money to an account registered at a UK bank.
Tony said: “When you are intimate with someone online, it seems real, like a normal relationship. She was promising to pay me back with interest, and it seemed like I would get my money back.
“I’d arranged to see her but she didn’t show up a couple of times after I’d paid her train fare. I was suckered in.
“It was dribs and drabs of money. She told me she’d had people at her door, that she owed rent. The biggest payment was for £300.”
However, relations with Jess soured when Tony accidentally sent her a picture of Sabina – the other woman he’d been talking to.
Sabina told Tony she’d moved to the UK from Ghana and had also been pressuring him to deposit cash into her account.
Over the course of six months, Tony transferred £25,000 to the two women, with the majority going to Jess.
Jess told Tony she’d uncovered Sabina’s contact details and threatened to expose Sabina to her family.
When the threats started, Tony blocked both of them from contacting him and called the police.
Armed with a crime reference number, he informed his bank and, to his surprise, they refunded all the money. The account Sabina had been using was also closed.
Tony said: “I looked at the situation and thought I’d been a fool. I was going to write the money off but I thought I’d get the police and bank involved and they were brilliant.
“They were beautiful women and I was suckered in. It’s just natural to be drawn in. I think a lot of men would have done exactly the same.
“I thought I was in love with them both. I wasn’t thinking straight.”
Tony hopes that by sharing his experience, he can encourage other men in a similar situation to contact the police.
He said: “Fraudsters can make a lot of money, so men definitely aren’t sharp to it. The fraudsters are trained to take people in. It’s a terrible thing to happen to you and I’m glad it’s all over.”
Tony has simple advice for anyone who is asked for money by someone they meet online:
“Do not pay a penny to anyone before meeting them in real life. No matter how sincere the story seems, don’t give them anything.”
If you believe you’ve been a victim of romance fraud, call us on 101. For other forms of fraud, you can also contact ActionFraud – the national fraud and cybercrime reporting centre – by clicking on the link or calling 0300 123 2040.
Statistics from Action Fraud.
Names have been changed to protect identities.