The charity Victim Support, the country’s biggest provider of services for victims of crime, has put out a warning to online daters after seeing a 38 percent rise in the number of romance fraud victims being supported by its services.

Lisa Mills, a romance fraud expert at the charity, says that as Valentine’s Day approaches, people could be more vulnerable to this sinister crime, as they search for love online.

The latest data from Victim Support shows a 38 per cent rise in the number of romance fraud victims being supported by the charity – going from 233 people in 2021 to 322 in 2022.

Lisa says: “Romance fraud is remarkably common and we often see spikes at times when people are feeling lonely or isolated. For example, we had a surge in the number of people seeking support for romance fraud during the pandemic, as many were cut off from their loved ones and sought companionship online. With Valentine’s Day approaching, we know that this can be a trigger for some people. We want everyone to be on guard against romance fraudsters, who could be posing as your ideal partner.”

Case study

In summer 2021, Jenny (not her real name), 39, received a message on Instagram from a man claiming to be in the US military.

“I got talking to this person. He said that he was using his friend’s account, because being in the military meant he couldn’t have his own.“He said, ‘the only way I can really talk to you is through WhatsApp’, so we exchanged numbers and then started messaging every day. Not even two days later he was telling me that he loved me.” Although this was a bit overwhelming, Jenny appreciated the kindness and support.  “I was very vulnerable because we were going through a traumatic time – my uncle was very sick. We didn’t know how long he’d got left to live.“Having the messages was a great comfort because it was as though we were in a relationship. He’d message every morning asking how I was doing and how my family were.”

But after a couple of weeks of messaging, he began asking her for money.

“He said that he wanted to leave the military and come to the UK to be with me. At first he said he needed $3000 to get out of the military. Then it went on to asking for $50 at a time.

I was sending everything I possibly had to help him, so I was literally living on about £30 a fortnight. He’d always ask me to send it through PayPal. In the end, this made it even more difficult to get back.”

A few months later Jenny began to suspect something wasn’t right. She started researching the US military and discovered it doesn’t cost anything to leave.

“I found a romance scam website and all I had to do was put the surname in of the person he told me he was and there was page after page after page of people saying, ‘don’t speak to this person, he asked me for £3,000’, ‘he’s asked me for money and he wants to come to the UK.’ There was about 17 pages just about this person – he was on all the dating sites. It made me feel sick.”

Jenny decided to confront him.

“He was just like, ‘don’t you trust me? You should love me, you should care for me – everything I’m telling you is the truth.’”

When she tried to end contact he continued to message, using different numbers when she blocked him.

Unbelievably, months later, the fraudster sent her a messaging, confessing to the scam.

“I’d been very unwell and I was recovering in hospital when I got a message to say, ‘I’m really sorry I just have to confess what I’ve done.’ And then he went through a list of everything he’d been using the money for.

“He had no remorse. Then he said, ‘I know you have the money, could you send me $50, I need to eat.’ I was like, are you really still asking me for more money?”

Over a year later, Jenny has not been able to get back any of the £4,000 that she lost, with both her bank and PayPal refusing to help. She now wants to raise awareness about romance fraud.

“I didn’t speak to my family about what happened until right at the end. If I can just make one person aware that there are people and organisations they can turn to so that they don’t feel so alone.”

According to Lisa, victims often struggle to tell those closest to them about what they’ve been though.

“Sadly, there’s a lot of shame and stigma associated with romance fraud. People need to understand that romance fraudsters are skilled manipulators – they know exactly what to say to make you trust them and believe that they’re in love with you, which makes it very easy to fall victim. Those who are targeted must never blame themselves.”

Lisa’s tips for steering clear of romance fraudsters this Valentine’s Day

Signs you might be dating a fraudster: 

Romance fraudsters are skilled manipulators, but there are some tell-tale signs that the person you’re speaking to online might not be who you think they are. Some key things to watch out for are:

  • Early declarations of love and excessive flattery.
  • Asking you to keep the relationship secret and making up excuses for not being able to do a video call or meet in person.
  • Asking for money – they might say they need the cash for a time-critical emergency, for example, to pay an urgent bill. They might try to convince you by using emotive language, saying things like, ‘but I thought we were in love’, or ‘I really need help, we have such a special connection’.
  • Asking you to accept money from third parties into your account – they might be trying to use you for money laundering.
  • Asking you for sensitive information or requesting copies of key documents like your driving licence and passport.

What should you do if you think your partner has defrauded you?

If you think you have been a victim of romance fraud, we can help – even if you don’t feel able to report it to the police. We offer free, confidential support to deal with the practical and emotional impacts of what you’ve been through. You can also:

  • Report the fraud to Action Fraud.
  • Report any loss of money to your bank – depending on the circumstances they may be able to help get it back.
  • Report the fraudster’s rogue dating profile to the website Scamalytics.
  • Keep a high level of security across your social media accounts and if using dating websites, stay on their messaging service for as long as possible – do not be persuaded to quickly switch to something like WhatsApp or Google Hangouts, until you have satisfied yourself that the person you are speaking with is genuine.

Last year there were 3.7 million fraud offences in England and Wales, according to latest figures from the Office for National Statistics.