By Mark Richards.

As we all know, yesterday was Valentine’s Day, but for thousands of people around the world it will have been the day when they fell victim to a ‘romance scam’ – someone promising undying love in a bid to get money or information from them. The romance scam is by no means new, but social media and modern technology is making it increasingly effective – and increasingly expensive for its victims.

I hope you had a good day yesterday. I hope extra postmen were drafted in to deliver cards to your door and I trust your inbox collapsed under the weight of romantic messages.

But for far too many people, Valentine’s Day will have been the day when they were drawn deeper into the web of a romance scam: when they were convinced that the person they had met online really did love them, really did need the money to pay for his sister’s operation and when they made the mistake of logging into their bank account…

What is a romance scam?

As we wrote in the introduction, simply put a romance scam is when someone pretends to fall in love with you and/or form a relationship with you in order to obtain money or information. They are by no means new – the honey trap is an essential part of spy fiction – but what is new is the ever-increasing ability to meet people online, and lose money to them. Dating websites, apps and social media are all offering fraudsters the chance to form a relationship with vulnerable people.

Everyone wants to be loved…

Many people reading this will have heard of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a theory proposed by US psychologist Abraham Maslow in the 1940s. It is a theory which seeks to explain human motivation, starting off from the most basic physiological needs – food, shelter, sleep – and going right up to our needs for self-esteem and self-actualisation. As Maslow put it, “what a man can be, he must be.”

Once our basic needs are met – we have some food, we have somewhere to shelter – then we move on to the next ‘level:’ personal and emotional security, financial security and health. After that, we want to belong. As Maslow puts it, we want friendship, intimacy and family.

Maslow does not say it explicitly, but it is easy to see that somewhere in between emotional security and intimacy is something we can express very simply. We want to be loved.

…And sometimes, your dog is not enough. We want to be loved by another human being and – as we get older – we want to feel that we are still attractive and that someone else might still find us attractive. Fraudsters know this – and mercilessly take advantage of it.

Who are the victims of romance scams?

According to figures from Action Fraud 63% of the victims of romance scams are women (although yoususpect that the male ego might mean men are less likely to report that they have been a victim) and the average age of the victims is 50.

In 2018 the total amount lost to romance scams was £50m, with Action Fraud reporting 4,555 cases – which means the average victim lost just under £11,000 (to say nothing of the emotional cost). The number of cases reported was up 27% on the previous year, with women likely to lose twice as much money to a romance scam as men.

There are generally held to be five warning signs that you should look out for. To borrow a famous phrase, in no particular order they are:

  1. He seems too good to be true. He writes poetry, performs lifesaving operations, comes from a wealthy family. It is a tough question to ask yourself – and probably even harder to answer – but, bluntly, why would he fall in love with you? Sadly it is a question I have to ask myself as well. About once a week a gorgeous young woman wearing very few clothes messages me out of the blue on Facebook. Seriously, why would she be interested in a grey-haired, middle-aged, slightly overweight writer?
  2. The relationship is moving very fast. This is related to the first point. A scammer wants to develop trust. What better way to do that than by falling in love with you? Alternatively, some scammers are prepared to build trust over a very long period, even sending small gifts or flowers – especially yesterday.
  3. Relentless messaging. Some dating sites charge you for every message you send or receive. If the scammer can keep the conversation going they are going to receive more money from the website operator. The answer is to only use a reputable dating site.
  4. They are reluctant to meet in person. If you are falling in love then sooner or later you have to meet. If someone comes up with endless excuses to avoid a meeting then the chances are that they are not quite as gorgeous as that profile picture suggests…
  5. Finally – and the biggest warning sign of all – they ask for money. Suddenly their sister is ill and needs a lifesaving operation. They are desperate to come and see you but cannot afford the airfare. They need money to pay the phone bill so they can continue chatting with you. Never, ever send someone money or give them personal details or financial information.

Be honest with yourself

As we have written above, we all want to be loved. We all want to feel special and, regrettably, we are all capable of self-deception. But if you are looking for a relationship, you have to put some information out there. No-one – however genuine – is going to ask you on a date if you do not have a profile and a picture.

That makes it easy for fraudsters: they will trawl through profiles so they know what potential victims are looking for. He is interested in all the things you are interested in? Does he have the same taste in music? Cannot wait to take you on that long, romantic walk through an autumn meadow… It is not a surprise: that is the information you posted.

Sadly, the best defence against a romance scam is a healthy dose of scepticism if not cynicism. And the thing that comes hardest to all of us: accepting that we are no longer as attractive as we once were. As the bathroom mirror tells me every morning…