Love cheats: People warned of romance scams as Valentine’s Day nears

Criminals using social media to target lonely people isolated during multiple lockdowns

The average amount lost by people fooled by romance scams came to €18,000 last year, according to FraudSmart, the banking sector’s fraud awareness initiative. Photograph: iStock

The average amount lost by people fooled by romance scams came to €18,000 last year, according to FraudSmart, the banking sector’s fraud awareness initiative. Photograph: iStock

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Lonely people looking for love are being exploited by criminals on social media, with the average amount lost by people fooled by so-called romance scams coming to €18,000 last year.

Scam artists are also taking advantage of the isolation experienced by many people over the course of multiple lockdowns in the last 12 months as well as an increased reliance on technology for human interactions to target the most vulnerable people.

The figures are released on Friday by FraudSmart, the banking sector’s fraud awareness initiative.

Niamh Davenport of the Banking & Payments Federation Ireland said a changed landscape as a result of Covid-19 had pushed many if not most elements of people’s lives, including socialising, online.

“With an increase in online dating, fraudsters are not only taking advantage of the rising number of people online, but they are also preying on people’s loneliness, isolation and vulnerability as a result of the restrictions and lockdowns we are experiencing,” she said.

She said the amount lost by victims of the romance scams had climbed as high as €50,000 in some cases. “This is a very significant sum of money and underlines the serious nature of these scams and the need for people to be extra vigilant to them.”

Gain trust

She said criminals use online dating sites or apps to gain trust and build up a relationship and emotional connection with victims. “They will often devote months to this process, after which time they will create a sense of urgency in order to ask their victim for money or indeed in many cases have the victim offer them money.”

In once such scam identified by the federation, an Irish man started communicating with someone he met on a dating app who identified themselves as a US-based woman.

After several months of chatting, the woman told the man she planned to retire to Ireland and they made plans to buy a home here together. The scam artist even called from a US airport just ahead of her supposed flight’s departure.

Later that day, the victim received a call to say the woman’s belongings were in customs and that a customs fee needed to be paid, but that the officials could not get in touch with the woman as she was on the flight.

The victim was told the customs fee needed to be paid urgently or the items would be returned to the US.

Not realising this was a scam and that the bank account was in the Philippines, the victim transferred €6,750, which subsequently disappeared.

While the number of people known to have lost money to scam artists in this way is less than 50, the real number was likely to be much higher. Ms Davenport said falling victim to such a scam could be “a devastating experience for people who get caught up in these types of scams, and oftentimes they are too embarrassed to report the crime”.